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BBQ for Volunteers Called an 'Insult'

State senator says the event for poll workers would trivialize the March election fiasco. But O.C. officials see value in the thank-you.

March 25, 2004|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The chairman of the state Senate's Elections Committee is criticizing Orange County's plans for a barbecue next month for volunteer poll workers, saying the festivity would trivialize widespread voting problems in the March 2 election.

State Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland) urged Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund in a letter to cancel the April 3 barbecue because "it adds insult and disrespect to disenfranchisement."

Angry Orange County officials criticized the senator for meddling.

In a response letter to Perata, Tom Wilson, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, defended the barbecue and called the senator's criticism shortsighted.

About 1,200 volunteer poll workers have confirmed they will attend the lunch, where hot dogs and hamburgers, sausages, barbecued beans, potato salad, ice cream and lemonade will be served. Cost of the event will depend on the turnout but could exceed $10,000, officials said.

"I don't know what business he thinks he has sending us something like this," said Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby.

"No legislator from Orange County would ever dream of sending a letter to Alameda County criticizing them for thanking their poll workers."

Norby said the event would encourage poll workers to continue volunteering and give them an opportunity to discuss concerns about the county's voting machines.

Poll workers struggling with the new equipment gave thousands of voters incorrect access codes that caused the wrong ballots to appear on their voting machines, a Times analysis found. Some of those voters were allowed to vote in races in which they were ineligible.

Perata said he didn't understand the reason for the barbecue.

"It just struck me as beyond ironic that they had all these problems and then are having what ... to me looks like a celebration," Perata said.

Perata and Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) cited the problems in Orange and other counties earlier this month in calling for a temporary suspension of electronic voting in the state. The senators said they were concerned that problems with the voting equipment -- purchased to replace punch-card systems that caused chaos in the 2000 presidential election -- could cause problems in the November general election.

A Board of Supervisors committee is investigating Orange County's election problems. At the barbecue, poll workers will be asked to provide suggestions about how to improve the system.

"We need to respect and honor volunteers. This is a way to do it in a low-cost fashion and at the same time get information about how we can do it better next time," said Supervisor Bill Campbell.

"If we get 1,200 people to show up, that would be wonderful. To get the equivalent, we'd spend hundreds of thousands on outside consultants."

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