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Sorting Out the Local Elections

Ballot Blocks

Tally: Machinery breakdowns hamper tabulation. Absentee voting also delays results.


It's 3 a.m. Wednesday at Los Angeles County's election headquarters in Norwalk, and 1 million ballots from Tuesday's election are stacked three boxes high along 72 feet of folding tables waiting to be counted.

A major breakdown of aging equipment that electronically reads every ballot has slowed the vote count to a crawl.

Like commuters backed on freeway on-ramps, the punch-card ballots that hold the key to the outcome of some local, state and congressional contests--including the still-undecided race for district attorney--are bottlenecked, unable to make it through the gateway to computers that actually tally the votes.

Eight of the 28 card readers that scan 240,000 ballots an hour have been down all night and the county's top election official is frustrated.

By midnight, less than 20% of the county's ballots have been processed, about half the number of four years ago. The secretary of state's office in Sacramento is calling asking why the count is taking so long.

The fate of some statewide propositions remains in doubt. So is control of the Legislature.

Meanwhile, across town, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and challenger John Lynch watch the returns trickle in, uncertain which one of them will wake up as the county's top prosecutor.

Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack says the county's extremely slow performance this presidential election is completely unacceptable.

Standing in an observation area with tray after tray of ballots waiting to be read by the computers, McCormack blames a 1978-vintage system for often leaving candidates, their supporters, the public and the news media without a final verdict on election night.

"Clearly the [system] we've got is outdated, it's antiquated, it's '70s technology," she said. "It's inadequate."

For more than two years, she said, the county has been trying to develop new software to speed the process for this night, only to see that effort fail.

The county's financial problems have hindered efforts to upgrade the equipment. McCormack said the supervisors now face a choice: "Is it worth it to upgrade [the existing system] or more appropriate to buy a new system," which could cost tens of millions of dollars.

As night gives way to day, a complete count of the county's 5,632 precincts proves elusive. Ballots from one precinct in Eagle Rock haven't arrived at the high-rise office complex that is home to the county's election operation.

McCormack said sheriff's deputies are searching for the grandson of a precinct worker who was to transport the ballots to a collection center and did not. (He was eventually rousted from a sound sleep in Pomona and was ordered to turn over the ballots.)

That precinct, the last, will not be counted until 7:10 a.m. Wednesday, 11 hours and 10 minutes after the polls closed--a new record, and not one to be proud of, McCormack said.

McCormack plans to go before the Board of Supervisors next Tuesday to explain the difficulties that "crippled our ability to count the ballots in a timely fashion."

And then there are the estimated 190,000 ballots still to be counted. The vast majority are absentee ballots mailed in at the last minute or dropped off at polling places Tuesday. About 50,000 were provisional ballots accepted pending further verification.

McCormack acknowledges the problems would have been worse if the turnout had been higher.

Final figures show the ballots of 59.2% of the county's nearly 3.9 million registered voters were counted Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The final figure could increase to 63% by the time all the outstanding ballots are counted, but that's still down more than 12 points from four years ago.

"I think it's the lowest in history for a presidential election in L.A. County," McCormack said. "We're disappointed because our goal is to have maximum participation. It's disappointing as a society to see the decline in participation. I'm surprised."

In Sacramento, Secretary of State Bill Jones said the sheer size of Los Angeles County makes it a key component in tallying statewide races. But he agreed that its size poses a huge task for local officials attempting to compile election returns in a timely fashion.

The increasing popularity of absentee balloting has compounded the problem. Jones said he expects the absentee ballot count to approach 25% of all ballots cast statewide in this election.

"When you go from something like 2% when we originally started the absentee process to 25%, you end up with a quantity problem, a lot of paper to deal with, and that is very laborious," Jones said.

"We're going to talk with L.A. and all of the other counties and evaluate the process, once a day or two passes. I don't want to add to their burden at this moment. But in December we would usually get together with the registrars and . . . see what we can do to help them speed up the process. It is important that their numbers be as current and as quick as possible."

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