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O.C.'s Votes Are Last in Line

The county's cumbersome ballot tally takes longer than anywhere else in the state. Interim registrar says he wanted to get it right.

October 09, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer And Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

In another race in Tuesday's gubernatorial recall election, Orange County finished dead last -- in the counting of the ballots.

But for Orange County's interim registrar of voters, the slow pace of counting about 750,000 ballots brought confidence that the vote count wouldn't be challenged.

And the price Steve Rodermund paid: more than 30 hours without sleep while overseeing the tedious vote count, which took longer in Orange County than anywhere else in the state.

The county used a temporary voting system for the gubernatorial recall, a paper-and-pen system that will be replaced in the March primary election by electronic voting.

Rodermund was braced for a long night, but the cumbersome process of feeding large paper ballots into scanning machines took even longer than he had expected.

Even though the county's old punch-card ballot system would have been quicker, Rodermund said, he was not willing to dust off those machines for Tuesday's election because of the concerns punch-card balloting raised in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

He said it was important to be prepared for a close election in which every vote could be scrutinized.

"I wanted to do it this way so no one could come back and take the county on because of potential hanging chads," said Rodermund, who submitted the county's unofficial results to the secretary of state at 3:15 p.m. "If I have a choice of being last and knowing I'm solid, or being quicker and having doubts about the equipment I used, I'll be last and know I'm solid."

Tuesday's election presented a host of challenges for Rodermund, who opened 476 polling places, about a third the number in past elections, because of concerns that the condensed recall campaign did not give his staff time to prepare the usual number of sites.

Many of the county's voters were steered to new polling places, where some of them confronted longer lines than in past elections. During a 33-hour period before the polls closed, voters placed some 15,000 calls to a registrar of voters hotline, most of them trying to find out where to vote.

Rodermund said he thought things went well at the polls, despite the occasional snafu. One polling place in Yorba Linda ran out of ballots shortly before the 8 p.m. close -- but workers went to another polling place to retrieve more, and voters who were willing to wait were able to vote, officials said.

Costa Mesa resident Ann Robinson, 83, said she had voted in every election in recent history, but on Tuesday, poll workers could not find a record of her. The disgruntled Democrat left without casting a vote.

Other voters reported long lines, some lasting half more than an hour. Rodermund's staff responded to reports of heavy volume by sending additional poll workers to sites in several cities, including Santa Ana, Anaheim, Fullerton, Los Alamitos, Yorba Linda and Buena Park. About 2,700 poll workers were assigned to the voting sites.

"I was not happy having as few polling places as we had. I just had no option," he said. "I was very gratified in the attitude of the voters in being patient and working with the poll workers. Everyone knew this was one of a kind."

Many voters said they were pleased with the one-page ballot.

"It was pretty simple; about half a minute is all it took," said Jesus Molina, 26, a construction worker and a student at Orange Coast College. "This was the first time I voted, and it was easier than I expected."

About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, the first of the ballots started arriving at the registrar of voters' warehouse in Santa Ana under guard of sheriff's deputies. Workers pushed the cardboard ballot boxes along conveyor belts to a sorting area, where the ballots were removed and carried to a counting area.

There were occasional problems with the scanning machines, mainly when the machines detected a crease in the paper as a second vote. Workers reviewed those ballots and corrected the mistakes, Rodermund said.

"There were all these little foibles we had to figure out before we could really get up to speed," he said.

Rodermund and his staff will return today to start sorting through about 40,000 absentee ballots that were submitted Tuesday and an additional 30,000 ballots cast Tuesday in which voters' eligibility must be confirmed.

Once the results are final, registrar officials begin a new task: training poll workers and the public to use the new system that will be in place in March.

With the last votes finally counted Wednesday afternoon, Rodermund said he had one thing on his mind. His pillow.

Rodermund said he hoped to get to bed about 5 p.m. Wednesday so he could begin fresh today.

"I hope I have a loud alarm to get me going," he said.

*

Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.

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