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Dense Fog, New Voting System Delay Counting of Ballots

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles city election results were delayed for several hours Tuesday night because dense fog grounded the helicopters that normally fly ballots downtown from distant parts of the city.

City Clerk Frank Martinez said a new voting system, being used by his office for the first time, also slowed the counting because officials took extra time to inspect the ballots.

The city has used Los Angeles Fire Department helicopters for decades to fly in ballots from five remote collection points, Martinez said. But this year, the Fire Department grounded the helicopters because of dense fog.

“For the precincts way out in the west [San Fernando] Valley and down in the harbor, we like to use helicopters because it’s much faster,” Martinez said. “Except for tonight.”

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By 10 p.m., city officials had dispatched cars to return the ballots to the city’s Piper Tech complex, just north of the Hollywood Freeway near Union Station, where they were counted.

The delays prompted anxiety and frustration at campaign parties for the candidates, as supporters waited expectantly for results that didn’t come for hours. John Shallman, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg’s campaign consultant, said the campaign’s attorney, Fred Woocher, had been in contact with the city clerk’s office to express concern about the way ballots were being transported. The campaign was initially worried that city employees had been directed to drive the ballots downtown without independent observers present, Shallman said. But after talking to the clerk’s office, campaign officials “feel a higher level of comfort,” he said.

At mayoral candidate Bernard C. Parks’ campaign gathering at the Biltmore Hotel, some supporters also expressed worries about the delays. “Are we in Baghdad or something?” asked Anderson Hitchcock, 57, a Parks supporter from Leimert Park. “The helicopters are down. What country are we in anyway?”

Martinez insisted that the ballots would be handled only by employees of the city clerk’s office, which was “a neutral party in this.”

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Officials said the fog proved to be the biggest problem in parts of the San Fernando Valley. “As soon as the helicopter got airborne, the pilots talked to the tower and determined at that point that it was not going to be safe,” said Fire Department Capt. Kevin Nida.

The problem prompted poll officials to switch to a contingency plan, which involves transporting ballots, stored in fire-proof bags, in cars. A city employee drives the car and is accompanied by another city employee. The ballots are taken directly to Piper Tech.

Adding to the delays, Martinez said, was the new InkAVote system being used for the first time in a mayoral election. “We’re going to make sure we do it right,” he said. “I realize there is a great demand for instant results, but we’re going to make sure we do it right. It’s our first time, and we want to make sure we do good ballot inspection.”

InkAVote is a system in which a pen pushes through the vote recorder and makes an ink mark, as opposed to the old punch-card system of voting.

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The delays only added to the election night drama. At 11 p.m., a campaign worker jumped on stage at Parks’ campaign party, grabbed a microphone and told the crowd: “Apparently it’s foggy out, and a couple of the helicopters are down so they are doing it the old-fashioned way, by road, and you know how clogged the roads can be

Times staff writers Jennifer Oldham, Jeffrey L. Rabin and Ann M. Simmons contributed to this report.


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