An intense, last-minute surge of voter interest has election officials across California scrambling to keep up with a record number of voter registrations and applications to cast ballots by mail.
In many of the state's 58 counties, registrars have hired twice as many temporary workers as they did in 2004, and put them to work in split shifts in a race to enter reams of information into databases from thousands of incoming forms.
When Nov. 4 finally arrives, experts expect a "tsunami" of voters at polling places, said Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Assn. of Election Officials. Anticipating the crush, many registrars have ordered extra ballots and doubled the number of polling booths and poll workers. Some have even hired people to direct traffic in parking lots.
"Everything associated with this particular election is about volume," said Dean Logan, registrar-recorder of Los Angeles County. "We have a record number of registrations, we're expecting a record turnout and record numbers of people voting by mail."
In Los Angeles County, the nation's largest single voting district, voter registration hit an all-time high of 4.15 million on file this month, topping the previous record of 4.14 million set in 2002, according to statistics from the registrar's office. About 3.9 million were registered to vote in the county before the 2004 presidential election, with 79.1% actually voting.
The immense amount of work comes at a time when county registrars are juggling what has essentially become two elections -- one that started Oct. 6 when they began to send out mail-in ballots, and the traditional Nov. 4 election day.
"What's killing us is running the two elections at the same time -- running a polling-place election and a vote-by-mail election," said Jill LaVine, registrar of voters for Sacramento County. "Somebody says, 'I want to vote.' And we say 'Which way?' "
The historic election, in which voters will choose either the nation's first African American president or the first female vice president, comes as county registrars across the state are struggling to keep up with changes in voting deadlines and new procedures enacted under state and federal laws.
Election officials and experts are concerned that the challenges facing county registrars from Shasta to Sacramento to Fresno to San Diego could lead to problems on Nov. 4, both at the polls and in tabulating the results. Tight deadlines leave election officials just days to ensure that voters are able to participate. Today is the last day to register to vote. California voters have until Oct. 28 to request mail-in ballots.
"It becomes almost a physical impossibility to get it all done," Lewis said.
In many counties, the number of applications to vote by mail is significantly higher than it was before the 2004 presidential election.
In Orange County, election officials have sent out about 580,000 vote-by-mail ballots, up 75% from 330,000 in 2004. In Los Angeles County, Logan expects to send out 1 million vote-by-mail ballots, up 22% from 816,637 ballots issued four years ago. The process is becoming so popular that about 41% of the California ballots in the Feb. 5 presidential primary were cast by mail, up about 7% from the 2004 primary.
State law changed in 2002 to allow any registered voter to vote by mail permanently. Previously, mail-in ballots were called "absentee ballots," and voters had to provide a reason why they couldn't make it to their polling place on election day, such as disability.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said her office was fielding about 2,000 calls a day. "We changed the hold message to tell people how to get answers to particular questions," Bowen said. "This started a week or so ago, at a time when in a more typical election the state doesn't even have an 800 number live yet."
Registrars caution that a large number of new voters, who may not be aware of voting procedures, as well as unusually long ballots in some counties, may add up to long lines at the polls. They urge voters to read up on the issues beforehand and to mark their sample ballot with their preferences and bring it with them.
In addition, some counties that bought new scanning equipment in advance of the Feb. 5 primary are concerned they may not have enough machines to process all the ballots.
"It may take longer to count ballots on election night" in these areas, said Rebecca Martinez, president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials. "That's significant when the nation is waiting for numbers."
To guard against problems, Orange County has created an election SWAT team of sorts. The 350-member squad will be armed with radios borrowed from the Sheriff's Department and will be ready to respond to any poll site in the county "within six minutes," said Neal Kelley, the county's registrar of voters.