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LOS ANGELES COUNTY ELECTIONS

Voters Are Left Dangling at Polls

Ballots: Last-minute changes in polling place locations prove more vexing to the public than any Florida-style hanging chads.

April 11, 2001|GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thou shalt leave no chads dangling in Los Angeles.

That electoral edict was crystal clear throughout the city Tuesday in the biggest election to use the now-infamous punch cards since the Florida presidential election debacle.

There were stickers on ballot boxes that said "Got Chad?" There were Internet pages and clever anagrams on sample ballots. Election workers even donned T-shirts with the words "California Does It Right," and a silhouette of the state of Florida blocked out by the universal "no" circle.

In fact, so many voters worried about leaving the now-legendary punch-outs dangling from their ballots that they jabbed their styluses like a stake in a vampire.

"What we're finding is people are poking it so hard they are breaking the styluses," said Kristin Heffron, chief management analyst for the election division of the city clerk's office.

Still, if most Angelenos dangled no chads, scores of voters were left dangling over where to vote. Heffron said 17 locations were changed at the last minute, although an unknown number of voters did not get complete information on where to go to vote.

And while she said the flood of calls her office received over where to vote was typical for any election day, angry voters were quick to make comparisons to Florida. By early afternoon, Heffron shrugged a bit sheepishly when asked about her workers' T-shirts belittling Florida.

Being from the much-maligned Sunshine State, Adam Elend was edgy when he found his usual Mid-City voting place, Pio Pico Elementary School, closed and quiet when he arrived early Tuesday. It took a roundabout trip to two other polling places before he found his proper voting booth.

"I just find it ironic that you look at the sample ballot and it has all this propaganda trying to distinguish itself from Florida, with this stuff like 'all about chad,' and then, when you get to the polling place you can't vote," Elend said.

"It's a Palm Beach kind of an operation where they're trying to deny people a right to vote," said James Wilkie, a UCLA history professor who lives in Pacific Palisades. His polling place had been shifted to the Bel-Air Bay Club off Pacific Coast Highway, which he described as "the most inaccessible place in town."

Even in the right place, information sometimes was wrong. Former City Councilman Mike Woo was told he was not on the registry at the first table he went to in the Silver Lake Recreation Center, where three precincts had been combined. Not only is Woo a voter, but his name was on the ballot--he was running for his old seat.

Voter Ruth Schwartz, who recognized Woo, turned around from the booth where she was voting and said: "He's really registered in the district--he really is."

Woo was sent to a second table, then a third. Finally, he voted (for himself, among others).

"This is really embarrassing for the city clerk," Woo said afterward. "It reflects badly on the city that the city can't tell us where to go. . . . I'm just expecting there are going to be a lot of angry voters."

Some voters, unable to find their polling place, went to the nearest one they could find, only to be turned away because they were not on the rolls. They should have been allowed to use a provisional ballot, Heffron said. That was what her office told more than 6,000 inspectors it trained for 2,143 polling places.

"That is the party line," she said of the provisional-ballot rule. "That is what's presented to the workers. Can I control how workers understand, how they learn, how they process this information? No."

As for comparisons to Florida, she said: "I think it turned out better than Florida. The kinds of situations Florida had we didn't run into here."

Besides a massive campaign on chad education, the clerk's office sent out 100 roving inspectors to check on polling places and stationed trucks with emergency voting supplies around the city in case polls didn't have enough ballots.

Heffron said her office tried to make sure voters were kept up to date. "We posted signs on Monday where polling places changed. We have been answering all the calls on where people go to vote," she said.

Nonetheless, Fernando Rios, 34, sat in his car, confused, waiting for the doors to open at St. Ignatius of Loyola Elementary School in Highland Park. They never did and there was no sign to say his polling place had been moved a few blocks away, to the Christ Faith Mission--Pisgah Home.

"I hadn't heard," he said when a reporter told him of the new location. "The other thing I don't particularly like is we didn't get a sample ballot. They usually send one. So, I have no idea who I'm voting for."

At Rios' new site, two precincts from different City Council districts shared a room, and some voters inadvertently went to the wrong booths. As a result, voters like Martin Zimmerman lost the chance to vote in the 1st District City Council race. Zimmerman saw the page for that contest was missing right from the start.

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