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COMPUTER VOTING SNAGS

O.C. Ballot Glitch May Affect Race

Election margins were believed big enough that polling place mistakes wouldn't have had a bearing, but a contest for a party seat is close.

March 12, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer and Ray F. Herndon | Times Staff Writers

Although Orange County election officials have said they don't believe mistakes with electronic ballots last week affected the outcomes of any races, one low-profile contest is now separated by just five votes -- leading one candidate to suggest that no one will ever know who really won.

A review of election data by The Times found that as many as 18 votes in the race for seats representing the 69th Assembly District on the county Democratic Party Central Committee were cast by voters who should not have had the contest on their ballots. Those votes could be important because Art Hoffmann holds just a five-vote lead over Jim Pantone for the sixth and final seat on the committee.

Last week, some poll workers unfamiliar with the county's new electronic voting machines gave voters improper access codes, causing ballots from other precincts to pop up on their screens, election officials say. Some of those ballots were identical -- apart from the precinct number -- to the ballots they should have received. But some allowed voters to cast ballots for races in which they were ineligible to vote and prevented others from voting on the races they could have.

The problems have prompted county and state elected officials to call for investigations. On Tuesday, Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell encouraged the county grand jury to look into the election and said he plans to call for an investigation by the county internal auditor. On Thursday, two state legislators, noting problems in Orange and other counties, called for a statewide moratorium on electronic voting until the technology is perfected.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Voting errors -- An article in Friday's California section about voting errors in an Orange County Democratic Party Central Committee race incorrectly reported that a Times analysis found between 9 and 18 ballots were cast by people ineligible to vote in the race. That was the estimated number of ballots miscast in a single polling place, the First Presbyterian Church of Anaheim. Overall, the analysis estimated that 19 to 38 ballots were miscast in the race.

The Democratic Party Central Committee contest is the first sign that problems with the new voting system could affect a race.

Hoffmann, who has served 18 years on the committee, said it's frustrating to realize that he might lose the position without ever knowing the true outcome of the election.

"Even if I win, I'm not going to say, 'Wow, that was an accurate election,' " said Hoffmann, a 47-year-old Santa Ana resident. "I think we've been sold a bill of goods. The margin of error was way higher than it should have been."

Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said he will report on election irregularities by March 30, when he is due to certify the results. After that, it will be up to candidates to contest the numbers if they choose, he said.

"Anytime you have a very, very close race, there are so many factors that could influence it. You have to go with the facts you have. If the person that did not win disagrees, you go through the process to contest the election. That's what our democracy is all about."

No candidates have said they plan to contest the results.

Frank Barbaro, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, said the party will try to take steps to avoid a revote -- even if it could be proved that polling-place mistakes did indeed cast doubt on the outcome of a race.

"We don't want the taxpayers to have to pay for a revote," Barbaro said. "We will deal with that internally. The person who came in second, we could make them an alternate."

The election for the Democratic Party Central Committee is typically a low-profile affair, the winners handed largely symbolic posts to help raise money for the local party and find ways to encourage Democrats to vote on election day.

But with questions about the accuracy of the vote, the race involving Hoffmann and Pantone is now being closely watched. The Times' analysis focused on polling places where some voters lived outside the 69th Assembly District's boundaries and therefore were not entitled to vote in that contest.

In some of those polling places, voters from neighboring Assembly Districts 68 and 72 voted in disproportionately high numbers. That's an indication that poll workers may have given them the wrong ballots, a problem The Times identified on a much broader scale in an article this week.

At the First Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, for example, official voting records show that 266 voters from an Anaheim precinct in the 68th Assembly District cast ballots, while only 178 from a neighboring, larger Anaheim precinct in the 69th District had votes recorded.

Overall, assuming that such turnout discrepancies at each polling place stemmed from poll worker mistakes, the vote total in the central committee race -- adjusted to estimate the number of ballots cast by Democrats -- was inflated by a minimum of 9 improper votes, and possibly as many as 18. Conversely, an equal number of voters in the 69th District precinct appear to have voted improperly in the 68th District central committee race.

"They were saying this was supposed to be so much more accurate than the old way of punching holes. It still boils down to the human factor," Hoffmann said. "If you were to compare the error rate to the old punch cards, you'd probably see we're a long way from matching the [accuracy of the] old way."

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