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Time Limits, ‘Express Lanes’ : Long Ballots Lead to Some Drastic Changes

Times Staff Writer

Arriving at the polls on Election Day, voters in various regions of the state are in for a few surprises.

In San Francisco, the fence-sitters who can’t make up their minds on more than 50 state and local propositions could be delayed while decisive voters with completed sample ballots in hand are whisked into an express lane, a la the supermarket quick checkout. In San Diego, frazzled morning commuters with their eyes on the time clock will be offered a manual punch, a computer card and instructions to complete their ballots wherever they can find room if the voting booths are full.

And in San Mateo County, voters already have been warned by this stern admonition on the official ballot handbooks: “Ten Minutes to Cast Your Ballot.”

Through these and other methods, election officials throughout California hope to avoid long lines, raw tempers and last-minute glitches brought on by some of the longest and most complex ballots in recent memory.

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‘Don’t Foresee Problems’

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, top voting officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties--which encompass the largest concentration of voters--are taking few unusual steps, confident that they can handle whatever develops Nov. 8. “We really don’t foresee any problems,” said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Charles Weissburd.

In these populous counties and throughout the rest of the state, concern over the possibility of long lines and voter delays has prompted an upsurge in the number of applications for absentee ballots, both from voters and political campaign managers worried about low turnout.

“I think there is going to be a tremendous amount of confusion at the bottom of the ballot with all the various initiatives,” said Steve Hopcraft, the California Democratic campaign’s press secretary, who noted that the party already has distributed 500,000 absentee ballot applications to “target” voters.

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Voters face 29 statewide ballot propositions--the most in 66 years--along with a variety of local measures that differ from city to city. All this is in addition to the presidential and U.S. Senate contests and races for various congressional, legislative and local seats.

For the most part, top state election officials say they are prepared to handle the inevitable voting-day crunch, although Secretary of State March Fong Eu is predicting a slower than usual vote count.

“We are expecting a long night, " said Caren Daniels-Meade, Eu’s press secretary.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., and election officials are stressing that those who arrive by closing time will be allowed to vote, no matter how long the lines may be. That in itself could delay the count, particularly if large numbers of voters wait until just before the deadline.

“This is not going to be over until a little later than normal and I think you’re going to find this statewide,” said Connie McCormack, San Diego’s registrar of voters. In addition to the 29 statewide measures, voters in San Diego will be deciding four county measures and seven city propositions.

“Between the insurance initiatives and the growth measures (on the local ballot), people are tearing their hair out here trying to decide which way to vote,” McCormack said.

That concern prompted her to launch what may be the state’s most ambitious absentee ballot effort, distributing 200,000 applications so far with 15,000 more going out each day. In past years, her office has distributed a maximum of 93,000 absentee ballots.

“Our success is much more than we anticipated even in our wildest dreams,” McCormack said, adding that she expects up to 25% of the county’s voters to cast their votes by absentee ballot. But there is a down side. Relatively few of the ballots have been returned thus far. Those which do not come in until Election Day will not be counted until two days after voting is completed. “That could be a problem in close races,” she said.

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The longest ballot of all will be in San Francisco, where voters must decide 54 statewide and local propositions.

“Even if you know what you are voting for it is going to take you at least 10 to 15 minutes just to punch the holes on the ballot,” said Germaine Wong, the city’s acting registrar of voters.

The idea of an “express line” for voters who have already made up their minds on the propositions was borrowed from supermarkets, Wong said. “Just as supermarkets have a line for people with less than nine or 10 items, we will have special booths available to voters who know exactly how they are going to vote and have it marked down on a piece of paper,” she said. Her office also has received 70,000 requests for absentee ballots.

Still, Wong said: “It’s just going to be a long, slow process. I would guess that not all polls will close by 8 p.m. because people will still be in line. That will slow down our vote count.”

In nearby Santa Clara County, officials decided to make use of an obscure state law that limits voters to 10 minutes at the voting booth. By highlighting that law in its sample ballot, George Mann, Santa Clara’s registrar of voters, said he hopes to head off any trouble on Election Day.

“People up here are getting a lot of information from surrounding counties about the length of the ballot and possible long delays,” Mann said. “We had to do something.”

Asked whether voters who violate the 10-minute limit will be ejected, Mann said: “We’re not going to wrestle anyone out of the voting booth. . . . If the lines are long, there will be enough pressure from those people who are waiting to make them hurry up.”

Weissburd, Los Angeles County’s top elections officer, said trying to enforce the 10-minute limit seems like a case of “overkill.”

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“We’ve had bigger (local) ballots in 1984 and 1986,” Weissburd noted, adding that “I really don’t know if there will be any lines. To be honest, what we are pushing is for people to simply mark their sample ballots before Election Day. The more people do that, the faster the voting process will be.”

Most of the 85 cities in Los Angeles County have from one to eight local measures on the ballot in addition to the statewide propositions. In the city of Los Angeles, there are five local measures, including two rival propositions dealing with the emotionally charged issue of oil drilling in the Pacific Palisades.

Still, Weissburd said, general elections are far less complicated than the primaries when there are separate ballots and voting booths for Democrats and Republicans. “So even with the longer ballot this year, I don’t foresee any specific problems.”

Don Tanney, registrar of voters in adjoining Orange County, is similarly confident. But he said things could be somewhat more complicated because of the voting system used there.

Unlike Los Angeles, where voters slip a single computer ballot card into a machine that contains descriptions of each measure, Orange County has the propositions printed directly on each voting card.

While most Orange County voters were given two or three cards during the primary, this time most will be handed five or six. “The vote count will be a little slower than in some prior years because of the volume of cards that will have to be counted,” Tanney said.

State officials remain guardedly optimistic.

“It certainly is going to be a long ballot, so we are hoping enough people study it and pre-mark it, and we are encouraging people to vote during non-peak hours, in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon,” said Daniels-Meade. “We have every confidence in the elections system and in elections officials. It will work, but it will just be slower than normal.”


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