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7,000 Orange County Voters Were Given Bad Ballots

March 09, 2004|Ray F. Herndon and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

Poll workers struggling with a new electronic voting system in last week's election gave thousands of Orange County voters the wrong ballots, according to a Times analysis of election records. In 21 precincts where the problem was most acute, there were more ballots cast than registered voters.

Wide margins in most races seem likely to spare the county the need for a costly revote. But the problems, which county officials have blamed on insufficient training for poll workers, are a strong indication of the pitfalls facing officials as they try to bring new election technology online statewide.

"The principal of democracy is every vote should count. That's why we need a better election system," said Henry Brady, a political science professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on voting systems.

At polling places where the problem was most apparent because of turnouts exceeding 100%, an estimated 1,500 voters cast the wrong ballots, according to the Times' analysis of official county election data. Tallies at an additional 55 polling places with turnouts more than double the county average of 37% suggest at least 5,500 voters had their ballots tabulated for the wrong precincts.

Problems occurred in races throughout the county -- including five out of six congressional races, four of five state Senate contests, and five of the nine Assembly races that are decided in whole, or in part, by Orange County voters.

Election officials acknowledged that poll workers provided some voters incorrect access codes that caused them to vote in the wrong legislative districts but said there was no evidence yet that any result was in jeopardy.

"From what we have seen so far, we do not believe any of these instances where people voted in precincts they shouldn't have voted in would have affected any of the races," said Steve Rodermund, Orange County's registrar of voters.

David Hart, chairman of Texas-based Hart InterCivic, which manufactured Orange County's voting system, said it would be impossible to identify which voters cast ballots in the wrong precincts because of steps the company had taken to ensure voter secrecy. For this reason, an exact account of miscast ballots is impossible.

The Times arrived at its estimate of 7,000 improper ballots by comparing precincts with unusually high voter turnout to the average turnout at polling places.

Orange County election officials have traced the problem to poll workers who were responsible for giving each voter a four-digit code to enter into the voting machines.

After signing in, each voter received a ticket bearing his or her precinct number and party affiliation from a poll worker. The voter would take the ticket to a second worker, who was supposed to scroll through a computer screen and use the voter's precinct and political party to select an access code that would identify the appropriate ballot. Several workers who handled this stage of the process -- including some who said they didn't know more than one precinct had been assigned to their polling place -- gave voters codes for the wrong precincts, causing the wrong ballots to appear on their screens.

Some voters noticed the problem and were able to get workers to give them access codes for the proper ballots. But many voters did not. The result was that turnout figures in some precincts were pushed artificially -- even impossibly -- high, while turnout figures for neighboring precincts that voted at the same polling place were artificially low.

"This is a procedures problem more than anything else. It's not a problem with a new kind of voting system," said Brady, the UC Berkeley voting systems expert. "Every system is prone to this.... Poll workers are typically amateurs -- well-meaning and hard-working, but amateurs -- and they mess up unless the system is absolutely foolproof. And this one wasn't foolproof."

In Anaheim, one Orange County poll worker said he was so confused by the precinct numbers that he told voters issued the wrong ballot to simply write in candidates' names if they didn't see them on the ballot. It was a frustrating experience for Shirley Green, an Anaheim Republican who said a ballot for the wrong precinct appeared on her voting machine.

"I said, 'There's no sense in writing in someone in the 67th that's running on the 68th.' ... I was very upset about it. It's not fair to the people that are running, and it's not fair to the people that are voting."

To successfully challenge the outcome of an election, losing candidates would have to prove in court that the problem was so widespread it probably changed the outcome of the election, said Fred Woocher, a Santa Monica election law attorney.

That doesn't appear to be the case in Orange County, where the only close race -- the Democratic primary for the 69th Assembly seat -- did not appear to be affected enough to change the result, according to the Times' analysis.

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