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Ballot Error Effect Cited

Orange County registrar says incorrect electronic ballots may have altered a race's outcome, but says results will be certified today.

March 30, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Although some Orange County voters cast the wrong electronic ballots in the March 2 primary, potentially altering the outcome of one race for a Democratic Party post, Registrar Steve Rodermund said he will certify the results of the election today.

In a report circulated late Monday to the Board of Supervisors, Rodermund acknowledged for the first time that his office's failures could have affected a race -- and gave ammunition to critics of electronic voting.

The report said 33 voters out of 16,655 in the 69th Assembly District received the wrong ballots and were unable to vote for six open seats on the Democratic Central Committee.

The candidate who finished seventh in that contest, Art Hoffman, trailed sixth-place candidate Jim Pantone in the final count by 13 votes. However, 99.7% of Orange County ballots were cast properly in the primary, Rodermund will tell supervisors today before certifying the election results to the secretary of state.

"With the help of our poll workers, these issues will be nonissues in November," he said in a report to be made at today's board meeting.

But Rodermund's report sidestepped a critical issue from Orange County's debut of electronic voting, analysts said. Although past election controversies focused on counting ballots, the problems experienced at some Orange County polling places March 2 centered on whether proper ballots were cast by eligible voters.

"At least in Florida, you had a physical object to look at, whereas when the e-voting system malfunctions, it's much harder to tell exactly what happened," said John J. Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

"My sense is that [supervisors] need to take a deep breath before going any further with the system," he said.

Orange County poll workers who were poorly trained on the new eSlate equipment, manufactured by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, gave about 7,000 voters incorrect access codes to generate their ballots, a postelection analysis by The Times found. The incorrect codes -- for precincts next to where voters lived -- caused the wrong ballots to appear on their voting machines, The Times found.

Many of the ballots were identical to those that voters would have received for the proper precinct, but an unknown number of voters were allowed to cast ballots in races for which they were ineligible.

In the case of the 69th Assembly District seats on the Democratic Central Committee, The Times analysis estimated that 19 to 38 voters had miscast ballots. Neither Hoffman, leading at one point, nor Pantone said they planned to challenge the outcome. Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro said the party would resolve the inequity internally so the county wouldn't face an expensive election.

No other races were cast into doubt because the margin of victory for winners was so decisive.

Two state senators already have called for Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to temporarily suspend electronic voting in the state until problems encountered March 2 in Orange and other counties are reviewed.

Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), who heads the Senate Elections Committee, and Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) said they were concerned that problems with electronic voting could multiply for the November general election, when turnout is expected to exceed the third of registered voters who cast ballots in the primary.

Although the outcomes of races, with the one exception, weren't affected, voters were disenfranchised because they were not allowed to cast proper votes, Perata said.

He and Johnson told Shelley they were prepared to push through emergency legislation to force decertification of electronic voting systems used in 14 counties in California constituting 40% of the state electorate.

Although most counties reported no problems with the new systems, some of the most populous -- Orange, Alameda and San Diego counties -- experienced problems that sullied election day and sent ripples of outrage throughout the state.

The overall outcome of the state's first attempt at electronic voting did more to erode voters' confidence in election results with the new voting systems, Pitney said -- an irony considering the systems were mandated after the debacle of the 2000 presidential election in Florida to restore voters' confidence.

"The danger is that we're trading hanging chads and getting hanging electrons instead," Pitney said. "New ways to do things also means new ways to mess up."

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