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O.C. Snafus Are Blamed on Workers

Lack of training is cited as a reason some voters got the wrong ballots. Registrar says he thought he had everything covered.

March 04, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the company that designed Orange County's $26-million electronic voting system vowed Wednesday to work with election officials to try to prevent the missteps that caused many voters to cast the wrong ballots Tuesday.

Orange County's registrar of voters said he will never know exactly how many people voted improperly -- many were given ballots with candidates from the wrong political parties or wrong districts -- but said he planned to investigate what went wrong and to estimate the number of flawed ballots.

"I'm very concerned that it happened.... I thought we took measures to ensure it wouldn't happen, and I was wrong," said Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund.

"I have to tighten up on the training of the inspectors to make sure it doesn't happen again. On the flip side, I don't think the mistakes or the issues out there affected any of the contests."

Most Orange County contests were decided by wide margins, and no candidate had expressed interest in challenging the outcome because of Tuesday's snafus.

Orange County was one of several in California to experience electronic voting problems.

San Bernardino County's computer system bogged down for several hours while tabulating votes, prompting the slowest ballot count of any of the state's 58 counties.

In San Diego County, some of the ballot machines didn't function properly election morning, delaying the opening of many polling places for more than an hour.

But in Orange County, the problem wasn't about inconvenience but rather an unknown number of voters who cast ballots in races in which they were not eligible to vote.

The problem was traced to poll workers, who were responsible for entering a voter's political party and precinct number into a computer, and then issuing the voter a printed code number to enter into voting machines to get the proper ballot.

Poll workers were supposed to scroll through several combinations of parties and precincts until they found the match from several choices. Some workers chose combinations that included the proper precinct but the wrong political party -- or the proper political party but the wrong precinct.

Voters then entered access codes, and the wrong ballots appeared on the screens, Rodermund said. Some voters noticed the mistakes, and poll workers were able to correct them. Others voted and later notified the registrar of voters about the mistakes.

Orange County election officials placed at least one trained inspector at each of its more than 1,100 polling places. Each inspector had attended five hours of training and passed a test to display fluency with the new voting system, Rodermund said.

"Every issue we had was related to a person not following the directions," Rodermund said. "Those that didn't get it, this will be their last election."

Rodermund said he would review such data as voter turnout in an effort to estimate the number of ballots cast improperly. It's possible, for instance, that some precincts will show that more people voted than were registered because ballots from that precinct were used by voters from outside that precinct.

A Times review of some election data found several precincts with unusually high turnout, such as one in Mission Viejo where more than 99% of voters cast ballots. That contrasts with 39% who cast ballots countywide.

David E. Hart, chairman of Hart InterCivic, the Texas-based company that manufactured Orange County's voting system, said he intended to work with Rodermund to reduce the possibility for human error in future elections.

"There's nothing wrong with the equipment," Hart said. "I'm happy with the way the equipment performed. I'm disappointed we had some user issues. It did everything it was advertised to do. We just need to make sure that the poll workers have proper information and are adequately trained to do the job."

One poll worker who acknowledged making mistakes placed the blame on inadequate training. Marcial Garboa, who supervised workers at a polling place on Gilbert Street in Anaheim, said he didn't realize until lunchtime that there were multiple precincts at his polling place. He said he dealt with complaints from voters by telling them to write in the names of their candidates if they didn't see them on their ballots.

Garboa said that there were more than 50 poll workers at his training class and that he didn't get access to the new voting machines being used by instructors. The training time "was too short. This was the first time using the machines," he said.

One Orange County voter said he was not surprised to hear about the problems. Brett R. Barbre, a Yorba Linda resident and president of the board of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, said he tried to vote at one of the county's early voting booths in February but was given the wrong access code four times, causing a ballot from another district to appear on his screen.

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