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New Voting Hitch Had Old Cause

Problems with electronic balloting in Orange County are tied to the familiar difficulty of recruiting and training poll workers.

March 06, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Confusion in Orange County that led to some voters receiving the wrong ballots on Tuesday highlights a problem election officials have been struggling with for years: recruiting and training temporary poll workers.

With the advent of high-tech voting, the problem is only going to get worse, some analysts say.

In Orange County, poll workers -- including some who said they received inadequate training -- gave some voters incorrect access numbers that led some of them to vote for candidates in the wrong political party or in the wrong election district.

Officials are investigating the problem, but say they may never know how many votes may have gone astray.

Computer glitches also caused delays in voting and in counting in Alameda, San Diego and San Bernardino counties.

The duties of poll workers in counties with electronic voting systems have become more complex than they were with paper ballots. It has become a job that requires more than the standard half-day of training.

"If we want high-tech voting, we need high-tech voting centers with highly trained workers. We should not be relying on people who are essentially volunteers to manage this complicated, complex system," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation and a past member of the secretary of state's task force on touch-screen voting.

No matter how advanced the voting system, when humans are involved in the process, mistakes are possible, election officials said.

The Orange County problem of voters ending up with the wrong ballots has happened in the past with paper ballots.

"It's not like we're moving from a perfect system to an imperfect system. In fact, I would argue we're moving to a much more perfect system," said David E. Hart, chairman of HartIntercivic, the Texas company that manufactured Orange County's new $26-million voting system.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said he needs to improve training to prevent mistakes from occurring in future elections.

Orange County poll workers gave mixed evaluations about their preparedness for Tuesday's election.

"I felt like our training was excellent. I received a total of six hours. I thought things went really well at our poll.... I thought it went really smooth," said Amy Tennyson of Costa Mesa, who served in Newport Beach.

But Howard Adler, who worked in Laguna Beach, said he left his half-day training session "exhausted, confused and with more questions than answers."

He said the biggest problem he saw was that workers got 10 minutes or less to test the equipment. As a result, he said, workers at his polling place frequently handed out codes that gave voters incorrect ballots.

"The problem was there was not enough time to work the equipment," Adler said. "I don't buy the argument that because we went through it once we'll be better prepared. Most of the workers were too intimidated to even go near them."

Workers who struggled with the new equipment might be reluctant to return, exacerbating the recruitment problem that election officials often face.

"There has been a chronic shortage of poll workers available for California counties. That problem will get worse as people who volunteer in the polls have negative experiences," Alexander said.

Los Angeles County's registrar of voters has watched developments in other counties with interest. Although Los Angeles County owns some touch-screen machines for use at early voting stations, it has not yet spent the more than $100 million it intends pay for a computer-based voting system.

"[Waiting to see the problems other counties have] is the most brilliant thing that's happened to us," said Michael Petrucello, assistant registrar-recorder in Los Angeles County. "The problems other counties are having, they would be magnified 100 times in Los Angeles. It would have been virtually impossible for us to have a successful implementation."

Alexander said counties would be wise to consolidate polling places and staff them with highly trained workers.

"As long as we're going to pay people $100 for a 15-hour day, we're going to end up with problems," she said.

"We have this quaint notion of our polling places ... your neighbors. It's a beautiful idea. I'd love to hold on to it. But our elections are extremely complex."

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