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In O.C., it’s a lot easier to vote

Barboza is a Times staff writer.

Drive-through voting? Casting ballots at the mall? While other counties struggle to get out absentee ballots and early voting in Los Angeles means queuing up outside the registrar’s office in Norwalk, Orange County is pushing into the far reaches of voter convenience.

One can vote at the mall or the airport. On election day there will be special registrar “SWAT teams” within six minutes of polling places to settle any problems. And when the polls close, there will be live streaming video of the ballots being counted.

To help alleviate a crush of voters on election day, the Orange County registrar of voters has undertaken one of the state’s strongest efforts to turn voting into an election season, giving voters as many methods and places as possible to vote before Tuesday.

So while Los Angeles County residents who wanted to vote early in person had to trek to the registrar’s headquarters in Norwalk, more than 20,000 Orange County voters have cast early votes at a dozen locations throughout the county: city halls, universities, malls and even the airport.

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And for one day only, they could register or cast ballots from the driver’s seat at a drive-through polling station in the registrar’s parking lot in Santa Ana.

“It’s incumbent upon us to continually look for ways to make the process easier for voters,” said Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters. “They want better service and we’re trying to provide it.”

Swells in voter registration and projected record turnout have election officials across the country worried about long lines, delays and shortages of supplies on election day.

Orange County’s promotion of alternative voting methods mirrors a nationwide trend, with millions turning out before Nov. 4 to cast their ballots. Thirty-three states offer either in-person early voting or mail-in ballots. At least 40% of California’s registered voters planned to vote by mail, according to data complied by the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials. Residents can vote early in person in 19 of the state’s 58 counties.

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Voting experts say Orange County is not alone in trying to offer non-traditional early voting locales. Communities nationwide are also setting up ballot boxes earlier and closer to home.

“More states are experimenting with alternative locations,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. “There’s voting at mini-malls, at Wal-Marts. They’re very worried about problems on election day, so they’re trying to spread it out.”

States and counties that have encouraged absentee voting have offered more drop-off points. One Oregon county allows people to drop off ballots at a McDonald’s, Gronke said.

In California, most counties are limited to offering early voting at their registrar offices, where ballots are cast manually, because their electronic voting machines -- the preferred method to cast early votes -- have not been certified by the secretary of state. But many have extended hours in the days before the election.

Because Orange County is one of only two California counties authorized to use electronic voting, it has branched out to a variety of locations in recent weeks, setting up voting machines outside a Target in the Westminster Mall, at the UC Irvine student center and at John Wayne Airport, though only ticketed passengers can cast ballots there.

And come election day, an “army of people” will be ready for the masses of voters and any number of problems, including a shortage of ballots and malfunctioning machines, Kelley said.

The registrar’s office has trained 350 roving supervisors with walkie-talkies and radios who will be dispatched to polling places through a call system. Ten rapid-deployment squads that Kelley compares to voting paramedics or SWAT teams will be stationed in vans throughout the county within a five-mile radius of every polling site, promising a response time of six minutes or less.

To make sure no polling places run out of ballots, Orange County is providing 800,000 extra paper ballots, a 3,100% increase from the 2006 election.

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And to help staff the polls, the registrar has struck a deal with Wells Fargo bank, which is allowing employees to be trained as workers in exchange for being able to use the county seal in ads after the election.

Throughout California, election officials weren’t resting easy in the final days before the election.

San Diego County, for example, spent 18 months encouraging voting by mail in anticipation of high turnout, and has added dozens of precincts to try to reduce lines and prepared tens of thousands of extra ballots.

Los Angeles County election officials have added voting booths to precincts that are showing jumps in registrations and have readied extra ballot supplies.

The preparations, said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan, are all in response to voters’ “general enthusiasm and excitement about this election. They just want to be sure that they get their vote cast and it’s going to be counted.”

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tony.barboza@latimes.com


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