As voting officials make fast-track preparations for the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, experts are predicting that California's electoral system will be strained in ways that no balloting has been before.
On Oct. 7, voters will be asked to cast ballots in often-crowded and sometimes-new polling places. Many will be navigating voting systems they are unaccustomed to using. Still others will be guided by poll workers who may be unfamiliar with the equipment and may not speak their language. And all will have to hunt for their favorite candidate on ballots with 135 names in no discernible order.
Elections officials and other experts warn that the recall election is fraught with pitfalls that, in the worst case, could confound voters, delay the counting of ballots for days, produce an inaccurate result or invite legal challenges.
"One way or another, it's going to be a mess," said R. Michael Alvarez, a Caltech political scientist and voting expert. "All these factors produced this situation where we will likely see trouble and significant problems."
California will deploy a hodgepodge of customized county-run election systems to decide whether Davis should be removed and, if so, who should replace him.
In many counties, voters will mark forms like those used in standardized tests. In half a dozen counties, voters will use the Florida-style punch cards that yielded hanging chads and divisive court fights three years ago. And in a few, they will register their votes on touch-screen devices that resemble automatic teller machines.
For election officials, the timing of the recall -- only six weeks away -- could not be much worse.
The unexpected balloting is catching many counties as they are introducing new electronic voting equipment.
Some are racing to comply with a court-ordered March 2004 deadline for getting rid of Florida-style punch-card devices. Los Angeles and San Diego counties, wary of confusing voters with new equipment, are using antiquated but familiar machines. Others, like Shasta County, are rushing new technology into service.
In four counties -- including Riverside -- votes will be cast using electronic touch-screens, the newest of the certified voting systems in California.
The machines automatically prevent a voter from choosing more than one candidate in each race. But because each "page" on the screen can only hold a limited number of names, a voter may still have to hunt through multiple screens to find his or her candidate for governor.
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said he has been working with the state's 58 counties to avoid a California version of what he calls the "Florida disaster." He hopes to dispatch up to 20 elections experts to counties and to mount public education efforts that would help voters.
"One thing I'm not saying is, 'It's a piece of cake, and we'll take care of it all,' " he said in an interview. "There will be problems. We need to anticipate them and solve them as we can."
The biggest obstacle is the sheer number of candidates for governor. The list is so long that it often will fill multiple punch cards or computer screens. The danger, officials say, is that voters might mark more than one candidate, negating their vote.
Registrars also fear that some who vote against the recall might not be aware that they are eligible to vote for a replacement candidate. And they are worried that voters won't read all the ballot pages and will miss candidates listed at the end.
In fact, a recent Los Angeles Times poll found that a third of likely voters are confused about the process; one in seven thought that if they voted "no" on the recall question, they could not vote for a candidate.
Sally McPherson, San Diego County's registrar, said, "Our voters are going to hear it again and again: They need to read their sample ballot. They need to review all the pages before they vote."
One election wild card is the number of write-in candidates. Another unknown is the turnout, which officials say could be high, especially among first-time and infrequent voters who might be drawn to a race that includes actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the top Latino state official. The secretary of state and others expect the turnout to be higher than last year's governor's race, when about half of registered voters cast ballots.
"If I had a choice between huge turnout and having to have the election process itself work harder, I would always want the huge turnout," said former Secretary of State Bill Jones, now a part-time consultant for a voting machine company.
A high turnout, however, enlarges the task for election officials who must make sure they have enough ballots, voting equipment and staff. "To say it isn't scary would be a lie," said Shasta County Registrar Ann Reed. "But that's why we're making sure we're getting all our I's dotted and Ts crossed."