Los Angeles Times, Mar 9, 2004
7,000 Orange County Voters Were Given Bad Ballots
By Ray F. Herndon and Stuart Pfeifer
Poll workers struggling with a new electronic voting system in last week's election gave thousands of Orange County voters the wrong ballots, according to a Times analysis of election records. In 21 precincts where the problem was most acute, there were more ballots cast than registered voters.
Wide margins in most races seem likely to spare the county the need for a costly revote. But the problems, which county officials have blamed on insufficient training for poll workers, are a strong indication of the pitfalls facing officials as they try to bring new election technology online statewide.
"The principal of democracy is every vote should count. That's why we need a better election system," said Henry Brady, a political science professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on voting systems.
At polling places where the problem was most apparent because of turnouts exceeding 100%, an estimated 1,500 voters cast the wrong ballots, according to the Times' analysis of official county election data. Tallies at an additional 55 polling places with turnouts more than double the county average of 37% suggest at least 5,500 voters had their ballots tabulated for the wrong precincts.
Problems occurred in races throughout the county -- including five out of six congressional races, four of five state Senate contests, and five of the nine Assembly races that are decided in whole, or in part, by Orange County voters.
Election officials acknowledged that poll workers provided some voters incorrect access codes that caused them to vote in the wrong legislative districts but said there was no evidence yet that any result was in jeopardy.
"From what we have seen so far, we do not believe any of these instances where people voted in precincts they shouldn't have voted in would have affected any of the races," said Steve Rodermund, Orange County's registrar of voters.
David Hart, chairman of Texas-based Hart InterCivic, which manufactured Orange County's voting system, said it would be impossible to identify which voters cast ballots in the wrong precincts because of steps the company had taken to ensure voter secrecy. For this reason, an exact account of miscast ballots is impossible.
The Times arrived at its estimate of 7,000 improper ballots by comparing precincts with unusually high voter turnout to the average turnout at polling places.
Orange County election officials have traced the problem to poll workers who were responsible for giving each voter a four-digit code to enter into the voting machines.
After signing in, each voter received a ticket bearing his or her precinct number and party affiliation from a poll worker. The voter would take the ticket to a second worker, who was supposed to scroll through a computer screen and use the voter's precinct and political party to select an access code that would identify the appropriate ballot. Several workers who handled this stage of the process -- including some who said they didn't know more than one precinct had been assigned to their polling place -- gave voters codes for the wrong precincts, causing the wrong ballots to appear on their screens.
Some voters noticed the problem and were able to get workers to give them access codes for the proper ballots. But many voters did not. The result was that turnout figures in some precincts were pushed artificially -- even impossibly -- high, while turnout figures for neighboring precincts that voted at the same polling place were artificially low.
"This is a procedures problem more than anything else. It's not a problem with a new kind of voting system," said Brady, the UC Berkeley voting systems expert. "Every system is prone to this.... Poll workers are typically amateurs -- well-meaning and hard- working, but amateurs -- and they mess up unless the system is absolutely foolproof. And this one wasn't foolproof."
In Anaheim, one Orange County poll worker said he was so confused by the precinct numbers that he told voters issued the wrong ballot to simply write in candidates' names if they didn't see them on the ballot. It was a frustrating experience for Shirley Green, an Anaheim Republican who said a ballot for the wrong precinct appeared on her voting machine.
"I said, 'There's no sense in writing in someone in the 67th that's running on the 68th.' ... I was very upset about it. It's not fair to the people that are running, and it's not fair to the people that are voting."
To successfully challenge the outcome of an election, losing candidates would have to prove in court that the problem was so widespread it probably changed the outcome of the election, said Fred Woocher, a Santa Monica election law attorney.
That doesn't appear to be the case in Orange County, where the only close race -- the Democratic primary for the 69th Assembly seat -- did not appear to be affected enough to change the result, according to the Times' analysis.
In the next few weeks, Orange County election officials will work on certifying the results from the March 2 election. They will look for evidence of questionable ballots. Unless officials find evidence that an outcome was changed because voters cast ballots in the wrong precincts, the results will be certified, Rodermund said.
Rodermund said that despite the problems, he is satisfied with the performance of Orange County's new electronic voting system.
He said that with 22,000 combinations of local, state and federal races for each of the parties, the election was one of the most complicated in the state.
Orange County election worker Darrell Nolta, who volunteered at a Westminster polling place, discovered after voting already had begun that, despite being told there was only one precinct for their polling place, they actually had two.
"Every voter should be given the correct ballot, and in some cases, this didn't happen, and I'm very angry about it," Nolta said. "This was an avoidable problem."
Rodermund said he and his staff are already looking for solutions. One idea is to reduce the number of polling places where voters could vote on different ballots, he said.
Elections system analyst Kim Alexander said Orange County's experience is alarming.
"We shouldn't end every election praying for wide margins," said Alexander, whose organization, California Voter Foundation, encouraged voters in the days before the March 2 election to vote by absentee ballot rather than use the new electronic systems used by 17 California counties.
"Certainly this kind of problem that's occurred in Orange County doesn't do anything to contribute to greater confidence in electronic voting systems."
E-VOTING: The Orange County registrar said that despite problems, he was happy with the electronic system's performance.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Orange County poll workers unfamiliar with new electronic voting equipment in last week's election gave many voters ballots for the wrong precincts, a Times analysis shows. The problem is most apparent at polling places where voters from more than one precinct cast their ballots. Use of the wrong ballot resulted in impossibly high turnout -- more than 100% -- in some precincts, while turnout in neighboring precincts was dramatically low.
Selected polling places where voting aberrations occurred
Precinct Registered Ballots
Turnout Polling place, city number voters cast pcntg.
Maple Elementary, 13074 165 279 169%
Fullerton 13420 1,061 48 5%
Montecito Center, 35129 530 582 110%
Rossmoor 35135 794 118 15%
Hacienda Mobile Park 02002 196 270 138%
clubhouse, Placentia 23193 450 110 24%
23213 617 35 6%
St. Andrew's Episcopal 13089 612 919 150%
Church, Fullerton 13221 897 118 13%
13223 916 109 12%
Cedarhill Estates, 13460 383 515 134%
Fullerton 13463 980 145 15%
Murdy Elementary, 14299 190 277 146%
Garden Grove 39358 1,066 189 18%
Serrano Elementary, 75114 397 422 106%
Villa Park 75115 600 109 18%
Blessed Sacrament 39208 289 310 107%
Church, Westminster 39281 671 139 21%
Kaiser Elementary, 51050 91 264 290%
Costa Mesa 52035 681 60 9%
Calvary Church 68157 24 55 229%
of Santa Ana 68158 1,046 298 28%
68322 107 11 10%
Trabuco Highland 54141 936 616 66%
Apartments clubhouse, 54142 898 68 8%
R. Santa Margarita Duce resid 07124 320 329 103%
Buena Park 07126 816 75 9%
Sources: Orange County registrar of voters -- Researched by Times staff writer Ray F. Herndon
Times staff writers Kimi Yoshino and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.
Credit: Times Staff Writers
Copyright (c) 2004 Los Angeles Times
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