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Glitches Hinder Casting of Votes

Problems with new electronic systems in Orange and San Diego counties frustrate voters. Officials call the harm minimal.

March 03, 2004|Jeffrey L. Rabin, Stuart Pfeifer and Tony Perry | Times Staff Writers

Problems with new electronic voting systems caused some Orange County residents to vote in the wrong district elections Tuesday and prevented some San Diego County voters from casting any ballot at all.

The difficulties in two of Southern California's largest counties marred the state's transition from decades-old voting systems to new, computerized ones -- part of a costly nationwide effort to avoid the kind of punch-card ballot problems that plagued the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

In Los Angeles County, voters marked paper ballots with dots of black ink instead of punching out the notorious and problem-prone chads. Officials in the nation's most populous county have yet to decide on an advanced touch-screen voting system that could cost an estimated $120 million.

Although there was some confusion with the new method of voting in Los Angeles, the county did not experience the trouble to the extent evident in counties to the south.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Voting machines -- An article in some editions of Wednesday's California section about problems with electronic voting machines in Orange County incorrectly reported that the 60th Assembly District does not include the city of Orange. Parts of the city are in the district.

In Orange County, poll workers unfamiliar with the new electronic voting system made mistakes Tuesday that allowed many people to vote in the wrong districts, potentially endangering the outcomes of several races, officials acknowledged.

Brett Rowley, a spokesman for the Orange County registrar of voters, said "many" voters called to complain that the wrong ballot popped up on their screen, but he said he did not know how many complaints the office had fielded.

"We've had quite a few phone calls [from voters] saying they received the wrong ballot," Rowley said. "It always concerns us if people feel they received the wrong ballot. Unfortunately, once you cast your ballot, it's the same as if you put your ballot in the box. We can never retrieve it.... That's the unfortunate thing."

Orange resident Sharon Urch had an experience similar to those reported by many Orange County voters. When she looked at the ballot on her electronic voting machine, she noticed the names didn't match those on her sample ballot. She said she was looking for Democrat Bea Foster's name in the 71st Assembly District race, but instead saw the name of Patrick John Martinez, a Democrat who is running for the Assembly seat in District 60, which does not represent Orange.

"I backed up the dial, thinking I had missed something," Urch said. "But I proceeded on and kept voting because everything else matched. I had a 3-year-old on my arm and I had to get to work. So I voted anyway."

Rowley said the problems can be traced to poll workers, whose job it was to provide voters with an access code for the proper ballot, not to the county's $26-million electronic voting system.

Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, who worked as a volunteer Tuesday at his neighborhood polling place in Fullerton, said any new election system is going to encounter some glitches. But he said he expected Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund to investigate what went wrong -- and to learn from it.

"No election system is perfect because it's run by human beings," Norby said. "Obviously, anyone who loses a race by just a few votes may wonder where those few votes came from."

Each Orange County voter was given an access code which, when typed into the electronic voting tablet, was supposed to produce a ballot customized for the voter's political party and precinct.

Rowley said election officials thought that some poll workers had made mistakes while retrieving access codes, causing many of Tuesday's problems.

Anaheim resident Shirley Green, a Republican in the 68th Assembly District, said she was given the ballot for the 67th District -- a mistake she said workers acknowledged having made from the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. when she voted.

"This is really terrible," said Green, 69. "It's not fair to the people that are running and it's not fair to the people that are voting. I was upset. I was not able to vote for who I wanted to vote for. That's my privilege and right to vote for someone."

It remained unclear Tuesday what impact the mistakes would have on any of the races in Orange County. Ballot tabulating mistakes and irregularities often result in legal challenges, but judges rarely intervene and overturn election results, said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine.

"Anyone can challenge anything, but courts do not like to overturn the results of elections" Petracca said. "It is a threshold question and this requires proof that there was a big enough problem that, had it been remedied, would have altered the outcome.... The legal hurdles are very high."

Without the tangible paper ballots, Petracca added, any recount would inevitably be complicated. Petracca said that any challenge would also have to prove that irregularities were worse than those previously expected with paper ballots and built into the old system.

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