Slow task of tallying California primary votes
February 6, 2008
LOS ANGELES (AP) – California’s registrars began the arduous task Tuesday night of tallying what may be a record number of ballots cast in the state’s presidential primary.
Precincts in at least two counties ran out of Democratic ballots after an unexpected surge of nonpartisan voters asked for party ballots.
Precincts in Alameda County stayed open as late as 10 p.m. after polling stations in Berkeley, Oakland and other cities ran out of ballot cards.
With 15.7 million voters registered ” an all-time high for a presidential primary in California ” and turnout apparently heavy throughout the state, election officials predicted that counting would last into Wednesday morning, potentially delaying final results.
“Some are thinking 10 a.m., but I don’t know if they’re being conservative,” said Steve Weir, head of the state registrars’ association.
Meanwhile, registrars warned that as much as a quarter of the total vote might be left uncounted until later in the week.
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Mail-in ballots received on Election Day can be counted only after precinct votes are tallied and then must go through a time-consuming verification process.
More than half of the 5.5 absentee ballots sent to voters remained outstanding Tuesday morning, and an unknown number of provisional ballots requiring special verification were cast during the day.
“We may not even get a rough count of how many ballots are out there,” said Paul Gronke, a political scientist from Reed College in Oregon who was in California to observe the election.
California’s top election official said Tuesday that her office had fielded complaints from nonpartisan voters who had trouble casting presidential primary ballots.
Under state rules, voters who aren’t affiliated with any political party can vote in the Democratic or American Independent primaries, but they have to specially request a ballot. The state’s Republican primary is closed to voters not registered with the party.
Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, said the most common complaint into a state hotline came from voters in the decline-to-state category who were upset after being mistakenly told they could not vote for a Democrat in the presidential election.
About 20 percent of the state’s voters are not affiliated with any political party.
In Los Angeles County, elected officials and voter-outreach groups threatened legal action against the county registrar over concerns that a so-called “double-bubble” problem with the county’s ballots could disenfranchise nonpartisan voters. The ballots given to those voters required them to fill in a bubble specifying which primary they were voting in.
The bubble appears before the list of presidential candidates.
If voters failed to mark that spot, the county’s scanning machines would not record the selection for president.
Los Angeles County is home to more than 784,000 decline-to-state voters.
One voter-outreach group that claimed the county’s ballot setup violates state election law said it planned to set up a Web site to collect ballot stub numbers from nonpartisan voters in order to request special hand-counts from the county registrar’s office.
“The registrar has to be willing to tell people whether their vote counted,” said Courage Campaign chair Rick Jacobs. The group is not affiliated with any candidate, but had retained an election law firm that also represented Obama.
More than 2.3 million absentee ballots were received before Election Day.
The shift in California’s presidential primary from June to February this year repositioned the state, the nation’s richest delegate prize, as a key battleground for candidates. Voters responded to the heightened interest, with 15.7 million registering for Tuesday’s election.
That’s the most ever for a presidential primary in California and is 700,000 more than registered for the 2004 primary.
The majority of voters cast paper ballots after an intensive review of electronic voting machines last year revealed that many of them could be hacked, leading the secretary of state’s office to implement new restrictions.
This prompted 21 counties to revert to paper ballots, including some of the state’s most populous ” Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Santa Clara.
The return to paper ballots in some of those counties also played into the expected slow tally on Election Night, in part because counties did not have enough high-speed optical scan machines to read the paper ballots quickly.
Instead of simply loading memory cards into readers and getting instant results, workers at county offices throughout the state were expected to spend the night feeding ballots into scanning machines by hand.
A shortage of smaller scanning machines, which typically are distributed to individual polling places, meant many counties were to do all their counting at a central office. Ballots were to be driven ” and sometimes flown ” from far-flung locations.
Equipment failures could slow the count further, especially in counties that are tallying all of their ballots on a few high-speed scanners at a single location.