March 7, 2004
Poll workers, voters cite tied-up hotline, poor training, confusion
By Jeff McDonald and Luis Monteagudo Jr., Union-Tribune Staff Writers
While elections officials continue to size up everything that went wrong with San Diego County's first stab at electronic balloting, the problems ran much deeper than a simple technological glitch, voters and poll workers say.
After the polls closed Tuesday, signatures on voter rolls in at least one precinct did not match the number of ballots recorded by machines. In other polling places, people were wrongly given provisional ballots.
Poll inspectors across the county complained they had been poorly trained to deal with even minor problems. For long stretches on election day morning, the hotline set up to tackle emergencies was so swamped that poll workers were not able to get through.
In Carmel Valley, one voter said she was allowed to cast a second ballot after the computer spit out her activation card while she was weighing her choices. She later said the card showed that her original vote had been counted.
"This is the most bizarre solution I've ever heard of," homemaker Kim Perl said of voting twice.
The registrar's office is still calculating the number of precincts that experienced problems and for how long, but by any measure it was high. The day after the vote, officials said at least 250 of the 1,611 precincts had not opened by 7:30 a.m. They have since declined to update those numbers.
Hundreds of voters, perhaps even thousands, were turned away from their polling place because the machines were not operating as planned. Some were advised to return later, but that was impractical for many voters. Others were sent to alternate precincts, where they were handed provisional ballots.
Some vote watchers predicted the difficulties. Weeks before the election, they organized a community meeting to discuss electronic voting. Activist San Diego is sponsoring the event, which begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Mission Valley library.
County Chief Executive Officer Walt Ekard expects to issue a report this week that will outline mistakes and recommend ways to avoid similar problems during the general election in November.
San Diego County investigators are not the only government officials reviewing the performance of the electronic voting system. State and federal regulators also are conducting independent reviews.
The state could move to decertify the machines, but it is more l ikely to order improvements in training and responses to glitches that might arise during the general election.
No matter what investigators find or recommend, many voters are still angry about the confusion. More than a few worry that their ballots may not have been properly registered.
"I've been voting 50 years, and I've never been denied the right to vote before," said William Fore, a retired clergyman from Escondido. "This is like a banana republic."
No one at the county elections office Thursday or Friday would discuss the various missteps. A county spokesman said all of the top officials were busy preparing their report on the election.
John Pilch, a retired insurance agent who worked as a polling place inspector in San Carlos, said that when polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the number of people who signed the voter log differed from the number of ballots counted by computers.
"We lost 10 votes, and the Diebold technician who was there had no explanation," said Pilch, who registered complaints with elections officials, his county supervisor and several others. "She kept looking at the tapes."
Diebold Election Systems is the Ohio-based company that manufactured the 10,000 touch-screen machines San Diego County agreed to buy last year. Supervisors spent $31 million on the system, even after complaints from critics and computer security experts that the machines could malfunction or be tampered with.
Diebold clients in Northern California and other parts of the country also have reported problems with the technology. The company said it does the best it can to keep problems to a minimum.
"It's certainly regretful if anyone was turned away," Diebold spokesman David Bear said. "But the issue that caused a delay was something that was identified and fixed very quickly."
Even so, at one precinct in Encinitas, poll worker Jennifer Hamilton and her colleagues first encountered trouble 45 minutes before polls were scheduled to open. When they turned on the device that activates voter cards, it displayed a Windows software screen -- not the screen workers had seen in training.
"All of us at that point got very nervous because none of us knew what to do," Hamilton said. "We searched through our binder to see if there were any instructions, and we found nothing."
Hamilton used her cell phone to call the county's troubleshooting hotline but kept getting a busy signal. The poll workers eventually were able to fix the machines themselves, but not until 7:30 a.m.
By that time, seven or eight voters had been turned away. "We got no help from the registrar of voters because we couldn't get through to the troubleshooting line," Hamilton said.
Hamilton's father, James Hamilton, was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit last month seeking to force San Diego and other counties to build more security into the machines. The case is pending in Sacramento County Superior Court.
Hamilton said she volunteered to serve as a poll worker in part because she was skeptical of touch-screen voting systems. Volunteers got one two-hour training class and were not allowed to spend much time using the machines, she said. They were never told how to jump-start card activators if they failed to start automatically.
"It's not that we're incompetent," she said. "It's that we were never shown how to do these things."
In Chula Vista, election workers pressed for time early on Election Day mistakenly began handing out provisional ballots to those who were lined up to vote, one resident said.
"There was a lot of confusion on the part of the poll workers," said Jeremy Kaercher, a church administrator who tried to vote right at 7 a.m. when the polls should have opened. "They started to register me as a provisional voter and I said, 'No. I'm not. I won't vote that way.' "
Provisional ballots are given out when a voter's registration is in question or when records indicate the voter was already sent an absentee ballot. The county was expecting to have as many as 20,000 provisional votes in this election.
The meeting this Tuesday in Mission Valley was scheduled before many voters began complaining about electronic voting, although organizers said they anticipated what might happen.
"We've been reading stories for months from all over the country of mishaps using touch-screen computers for voting," said Brina-Rae Schuchman, who is one of the meeting's sponsors.
Staff writer Michael Burge contributed to this report.
Luis Monteagudo: (619) 542-4589; firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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