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Orange County

Grand Jury Won't Investigate Vote Machines

The panel says it will rely on two supervisors to examine ballot problems. The activist who sought the probe criticizes the decision.

March 23, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Grand Jury has decided not to review problems with the county's new voting machines in the March 2 election, and instead will rely on two county supervisors to investigate the matter, the panel's foreman said Monday.

The chairman of a community activist group that sought the probe said he was disappointed by the decision.

"They're abrogating their responsibilities and washing their hands of it," said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County. "The grand jury is made up of ordinary citizens. In a sense, it is the grand jury who should say, 'Wait a minute. There's something here that merits greater research.' ... I don't think the Board of Supervisors can duplicate a citizens' review committee."

The Times reported two weeks ago that about 7,000 voters may have cast ballots in the wrong precincts, some of them voting in local, state and federal races in which they were ineligible.

The bulk of the election problems involved poll workers who gave incorrect access code numbers to voters, causing the wrong ballots to appear on their voting machines. Last week, the Board of Supervisors named members Chris Norby and Bill Campbell to review the election problems, recommend solutions and follow up to make sure those suggestions are followed.

Tom W. Staple, chairman of the grand jury, said his panel did not want to duplicate Norby's and Campbell's work. The supervisors plan to hold hearings next month in Fullerton and Irvine to study election day problems.

"At this point, we would rather see what kind of conclusions the Board of Supervisors comes to," said Staple, who announced the panel's decision in a letter to David. "If we think there's anything more than what they find out, then we can always do something. We feel there's no sense at this point in duplicating efforts and we'll see what the Board of Supervisors does."

Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine, said that although he has doubts about the influence the grand jury wields, he believes the panel should address the voting problems.

"It's a major disappointment," Petracca said. "These problems, after all, involve the essence of a democracy -- the right to vote.... It's almost incredible that they believe this is unnecessary or inappropriate for them because it would be duplicative. Our system of self-government is very much predicated on checks and balances, which by their very nature entail considerable duplication of effort."

Norby said he believes the Board of Supervisors committee is better suited to handle the problem than the grand jury.

"The Board of Supervisors are the ultimate watchdogs. We have more power, more authority, certainly a higher profile than the grand jury," Norby said. "All of us are concerned about improving the election process.

"The changes and improvement the public seeks will be obtained through these subcommittee hearings."

Campbell and Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund have suggested separately that the county set up polling places where voters will have only one possible ballot style, reducing the chances that a voter could end up voting on an improper ballot.

David, who requested the investigation in a letter to the grand jury, said his group is concerned about the public's confidence in the election process.

"We are out in the community impressing on our Latino community to go out and vote, your vote is important. It counts. Then we have this mishap and we're back a number of steps in promoting and convincing people how truly important voting is," David said.

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