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Human error stokes confusion at one Venice polling station

When the election inspector fails to show, poll workers and L.A. County officials scramble to make do. For several hours, casting a provisional ballot is the only option.

June 09, 2010|By Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times

What if you held an election and the person who was supposed to bring the ballots didn't show?

That's what happened Tuesday morning at one polling place in Venice.


FOR THE RECORD:
Venice polling problems: A photo caption in Wednesday's Section A accompanying an article about election day problems at a Venice polling station identified a voter as Lisa Jack and her daughter as Miranda Binschadler. Their names are Lisa Jackson and Miranda Bindschadler. —

We may live in a high-tech society, but in L.A. County, at least the act of voting remains decidedly low-tech. You step up to a little plastic booth with a paper card and mark it with an inky stylus and then stick it in a plastic tub.

So when the election inspector for Precinct 9001554A in Venice was a no-show at 6 a.m. at the Venice Methodist United Church polling location, the poll workers found themselves without ballots, vote recorders, portable booths or the voter roster — only an hour before the polls opened.

Workers called precinct coordinator Ruby Patterson, who immediately called the county registrar/recorder. While county officials sent a troubleshooter to scout the home of the missing inspector, Patterson went to the polling place armed with emergency supplies — mainly provisional ballots — and scrambled to make do for a while.

But that couldn't stop the confusion that descended upon the polling place during its first couple of hours of being open.

Voters arriving were asked if they had sample ballots. "The sample ballot was to actually know who you're voting for," Patterson said. "Otherwise it just looks like this." She held up the ballot card filled with numbered bubbles. Without the official vote recorder — or the sample ballot, which includes the number for each bubble — voters wouldn't know how to mark the ballots.

"We went through a list of things," Patterson recalled. "'If you don't have your sample ballot, do you live close by? Can you get it?'"

Voters could come back later. Or they could walk across the room to another precinct's voting area; that precinct had all its materials. But to cast ballots in those booths, voters had to vote by provisional ballot because they weren't on the roster. In fact, even if a voter had a sample ballot, the substitute ballot that Patterson was providing was only a provisional one, meaning that it would not be counted Tuesday.

"A lot of people didn't want to do that. They wanted their vote to count today," said Patterson, who estimated that 15 to 20 people walked out without voting.

"People stormed away," she said. "We had a lot of angry people. I can't blame them."

One of those upset was Peter Thottam, a Democratic candidate for state Assembly. "Mad as Hell? Vote," proclaimed his campaign signs. On Tuesday, he was mad as hell because he couldn't vote, at least not the way he wanted to.

"Here I am, a candidate; this is my neighborhood," Thottam said. "This is one of the most progressive districts in the county. But people couldn't vote because of the ineptitude of the county.... My wife couldn't vote for me today."

Well, she could — but only by provisional ballot. Thottam's estimate of people who left without voting was 50 to 100, far higher than Patterson's. (Patterson said no one was turned away from provisional balloting in some form.)

Thottam brought his own absentee ballot to the polls and convinced Patterson to compare it with the other precinct's ballot. Since they were identical, workers could stop asking about sample ballots and just send voters directly to that precinct's machines by about 9 a.m.

"I don't blame the volunteers," Thottam said. "I blame the county for not getting its act together."

The county's troubleshooter finally retrieved the precinct's voter roster and ballots from the inspector's house — the man had injured his leg in an accident Monday and had failed to notify the county, an official said — and got them to the polling place about 10:15 a.m.

Half an hour later, a sheriff's deputy from Norwalk walked into the polling place with boxes of voter booths.

"Yes! You have some equipment for me!" exclaimed Patterson, throwing her arms up in the air.

carla.hall@latimes.com

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