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Few glitches except for independents

Times Staff Writer

Voters around the state reported scattered problems obtaining ballots in California’s presidential primary Tuesday, including some independent voters who said they were kept from voting in the Democratic contest and others who worried their ballots might not be counted.

In Los Angeles County in particular, some independents who voted in the Democratic contest feared that their votes would be thrown out because they did not mark a separate Democratic Party bubble.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, concerned that some independent voters were improperly denied partisan ballots, issued a statement hours before the polls closed, reminding workers of the rules allowing independents to vote in the presidential primary.

Independents, officially known in California as decline-to-state voters, were entitled to vote in the Democratic Party or American Independent Party primaries. The California Republican Party declined to let independents vote in its presidential contest.

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“The secretary of state’s Voter Hotline has received several dozen calls from [decline- to-state] voters around the state reporting some county poll workers have not been fully aware of voter rights,” Bowen’s office said.

Overall, voter turnout was high, and in some places it was evident that ballots were readily distributed to independent voters.

In Riverside and Contra Costa counties, for example, election officials said some polling places were running short of Democratic ballots by the afternoon and more had to be delivered. After 14 polling places in Alameda County ran out of ballots, the registrar of voters directed that they remain open as late as 10 p.m., said Guy Ashley, a spokesman for the registrar.

Independents could play a large part in choosing the Democratic nominee. They make up more than 19% of all registered voters, compared with 43% who are registered Democrats. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has done well among independents in some states and hoped to in California.

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In Los Angeles County, problems for independent voters were compounded by a unique voting system that required them to mark the party designation in addition to the candidate

Paul Drugan, executive assistant with the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office, acknowledged that hundreds of ballots might be thrown out because the party bubble wasn’t marked. But he said the instructions on the ballot were clear and that election officials had been educating independent voters about the requirement for months.

“We kind of foresaw this would be a problem a while ago,” he said. “Seeing that was going to be a problem, we got the message out.”

Even so, Drugan acknowledged that his office had received a number of calls from irate and panic-stricken voters worried that they had not marked the party bubble.

“Is it a perfect system?” he asked. “No, it is not. Elections are an imperfect beast.”

In Orange County, some independents hoping to cast votes in the Democratic primary were nearly thwarted because they were unknowingly given nonpartisan ballots.

Amy McLain, a Buena Park registered nurse and independent voter who intended to vote for Obama, did not know she had to ask for a Democratic ballot. Just as she began to vote, she realized the candidates’ names were absent and was able to persuade poll workers to give her a Democratic ballot.

But her husband, Robert McLain, a Cal State Fullerton history professor who is also an independent, did not realize he had been given a ballot without presidential candidates until he had voted on ballot measures. By then it was too late to cancel his vote and start over, poll workers told him.

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“He is furious that no one told him that if you intend to vote in the Democratic primary, you need a Democratic [ballot],” she said.

Voters said at least two Los Angeles-area polling places had not opened Tuesday morning when they showed up to cast their ballots. At the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard, officials didn’t get voting equipment until 12:20 p.m. -- more than five hours after the polls opened. At Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Los Angeles, the doors were locked until 11 a.m.

An apparent glitch in registration left an unknown number of students at USC either unable to vote or casting provisional ballots that might not count.

Despite such problems, election officials said the California vote was proceeding well overall.

“With every election we do hear of pockets of confusion,” said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state. “This time around we are again hearing of some isolated incidents, but the election is running smoothly across the state.”

Around the nation, election monitors said they had received only scattered reports of problems, though it was too early to assess how seriously they might have affected voting. In Tennessee, a handful of counties had to close polls early because of tornadoes; in Missouri, high winds caused delays.

One of the oddest voting irregularities occurred In Illinois, where voters at a Chicago precinct were given styluses designed for touch-screen machines instead of ink pens. When voters complained the devices made no marks on their paper ballots, a ballot judge told them the markers were full of invisible ink, the Associated Press reported.

“After 20 people experienced the same problem, somebody said, ‘Wait, we’ve got 20 ballots where nobody’s voted for anything,’ ” said Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen. Officials were trying to contact the voters. Allen said both the voters and the ballot judge believed the invisible ink theory.

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ralph Vartabedian, Tony Barboza and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.


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