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VOTER GUIDE

A Challenging Election Day

September 28, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

California's first effort to recall a governor has been anything but routine, from the huge and eclectic field of candidates eager to replace Gov. Gray Davis to a series of lawsuits that sought to postpone the election. Only last week could anyone even be sure the Oct. 7 election would be held.

As the campaign rolls into its final days, about the only thing voters can count on is finding a few more kinks in the system on election day.

"Everything about this is abnormal," said Angela Burrell, spokeswoman for the Orange County registrar of voters.

For starters, millions of Californians won't be casting ballots at the same place they used last year. It remains unclear how many of them realize this -- to the trepidation of election officials up and down the state.

California's 58 counties had less than three months to prepare for the vote. On July 23 the secretary of state certified that recall petitioners had collected enough signatures to force an election, which had to be held within 80 days.

Because of the time crunch, county registrars consolidated thousands of precincts so they could stage the election with fewer polling places and workers than usual.

In Los Angeles County, Registrar-Recorder Conny B. McCormack compressed about 4,900 regular precincts into 1,786 for the recall. The county stamped a large red-and-blue "voter alert" message on the front of the sample ballots mailed to 4 million registered voters, warning them to check the back cover to see whether their polling places had changed.

McCormack's office also has mailed signs and maps to more than 3,000 polling places that aren't being used this time, asking them to post the materials to guide stray voters to the proper locations. Orange County, which condensed about 1,700 polling places into 476, plans to do the same. Other Southern California counties such as Riverside have decided not to post extra signs, relying on voters to review the ballot ahead of time.

"Check your sample ballot. Mark it so that you can find your candidate," advised Mischelle Townsend, the Riverside County registrar. "We've experienced great momentum and enthusiasm for this election, and we want to maintain that."

Some voters, however, already have flagged potential problems. Joan Leonard of Sherman Oaks made a dry run to check out her new polling place -- a storefront tucked beside a freeway offramp -- and had trouble finding the driveway. When she did get in, she saw there were only six parking spaces to accommodate the 2,600 voters in her precinct.

"It's really a loser location," she said. "If every poll was picked the way this one was, it's probably going to be a real fiasco."

After Leonard alerted the registrar's office, election officials secured a few more spaces.

When people arrive at their polling place, they should be prepared for more surprises. In sleepier races, they might show up at the local elementary school gym to cast a ballot and find no other voters in sight -- only a row of bored poll workers.

But in this election, with fewer polling places and experts predicting a large turnout, voters may have to wait in line for 10 to 20 minutes, particularly during the morning and evening rush hours. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and state law requires election workers to allow everyone already in line at closing time to cast a vote.

The Ballot

The October ballot poses just four questions, two involving the recall and two on other measures.

The first question is the recall itself: "Shall Gray Davis be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?"

Voters can choose yes or no, or skip the question. Whichever they decide, they can still cast a vote on the next matter: Who will replace Davis if he is recalled. He needs a majority vote to stay in office.

There will be 135 candidates listed as possible successors. Davis does not appear as a choice because he cannot run to replace himself.

The long list concerns some election officials, who worry that people may have trouble finding their candidate or may accidentally vote for more than one person. The candidates' names appear in no apparent order. They were arranged based on a lottery of randomly selected letters that created an odd alphabet in which names beginning with R will be followed by those starting with W, Q, O and so on. Even within a group of names beginning with the same letter, they are arranged in this order.

State law requires that the ballot order rotate throughout the state's 80 Assembly districts, so that the candidate listed first in District 1 drops to the bottom of the list in District 2, bumping the others up one notch.

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