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Election czar's to-do list includes reforms

L.A. County's Dean Logan wants to replace voting machines, make voting by mail simpler.

November 10, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Oldham is a Times staff writer.

Even after he records the final results from Tuesday's historic presidential election, Los Angeles County's election czar isn't likely to get any rest.

When he's done counting roughly 16% of the ballots left over from Nov. 4, Dean Logan, the county's registrar-recorder, will turn his attention toward improving the democratic process for the next generation. On his list: replacing the county's much-maligned voting equipment, increasing the number of early voting sites and streamlining mail-in balloting in the nation's largest voting district.

"There's no room for any complacency in this process," said Logan, 41, in a post-election interview.

By most accounts Logan did a good job, handling the highest number of voters -- about 3.5 million -- to ever turn out for an election in L.A. County. He had already overcome two other major challenges this year -- including validating about 38,000 disputed ballots from the Feb. 3 primary and processing a flood of same-sex marriage ceremonies in the summer.

"I want to personally applaud the registrar's office," said Jackie Dupont-Walker, president of Ward Economic Development Corp., a community-based group in Los Angeles that served as a polling place last week. "I know they did extraordinary things."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Voting: An article in Monday's California section about future voting reforms in Los Angeles County said the state's presidential primary was held Feb. 3. It was held Feb. 5.

But voters' rights advocates and Logan acknowledged that a record number of voter registrations and applications to vote by mail, combined with the high voter turnout, brought to the forefront long-standing problems with the voting process:

* Voter registration and vote-by-mail application deadlines that are too close to election day, making it difficult for workers to enter data in time and leaving no room to correct errors.

* Federal and state election laws that confuse voters and poll workers.

* Alternative voting methods such as early voting and processing vote-by-mail applications that require more resources to avoid glitches.

Problems arose in some Los Angeles County precincts, including Dupont-Walker's. At least half the voters who arrived at her polling place -- about 200 people in her estimation -- found they weren't listed in poll books or on supplemental lists, even though they received sample ballots.

Many of these residents joined about 243,700 county voters who cast provisional ballots because of polling place problems.

Election officials count provisional ballots by hand during the 28-day canvass period following election day. Such counts are time-consuming and require workers to verify that the person who cast a provisional ballot was registered to vote. To do so, clerks check the signature on the envelope that contains the provisional ballot against the signature on the voter's registration form.

Voting rights advocates said a crush of last-minute voter registrations and applications to vote by mail overwhelmed Logan's office, causing workers to fall behind in entering voters' information into databases. This in turn required Logan to FedEx supplemental rosters to polling sites the weekend before election day. Some didn't arrive in time for Tuesday.

But the problem wasn't widespread, Logan said, adding that the increase in provisional ballots was "proportionate to the increase in registration and the increase in turnout, so it's not alarming to me."

"That's why you have to have a fail-safe method to prevent those inadvertent human errors from disenfranchising somebody," he added.

Elections experts said that high rates of provisional ballot usage can suggest shortcomings in election administration. These ballots were mandated under federal election reforms enacted in 2002 after about 3 million votes were lost in 2000.

Registrars agree that California's voter registration deadline -- 15 days before election day -- leaves a tighter turnaround time than in many other states and makes it more difficult to update voter rolls.

"This election proved these deadlines don't work," said Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County.

Indeed, in Los Angeles County, clerks were working overtime to process a backlog of 55,000 registrations six days before Nov. 4.

But registrars across the state concede the political will isn't there to change a law that benefits lawmakers who want to register as many people as possible.

Logan cited studies showing that more people participate in elections when the deadline to register is later and added that he would prefer to make the process more efficient through online voter registration. But such a system is probably years away.

Officials could also reduce the need for provisional ballots, voting rights advocates said, by rolling back the deadline to apply to vote by mail, which falls one week before the election.

This deadline ensures that some voters won't get their ballots in time to send them back.

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