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O.C. election ‘SWAT team’ swooped in

Tran is a Times staff writer.

An hour before sunrise on election day, when most voters were still asleep, 10 men and women got into unmarked white vans and deployed across Orange County. They were equipped with walkie-talkies, voting machines, power cords and maps. They were tactically stationed within six minutes of each of the county’s 1,181 polling places.

This was the Orange County registrar’s special “SWAT team,” an operations unit charged with fixing any problem at the polls.

James White -- technically Rapid Deployment Team No. 4 -- headed toward Mission Viejo at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday. His first assignment was at the Living World Church. Poll workers had discovered there were no voting machines with access for the disabled.

“We’re kind of like the paramedics of election day,” White said. Registrar “Neal Kelley tells us, ‘You guys have the most important job on election day.’ We’re the ones out here making sure people can vote.”

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White hiked up his jeans and carried one disabled- access unit in each hand from the van into the drizzle. He stayed to make sure the machines were up and running until he received another assignment over the radio.

“We gotta go,” he said, running toward the van.

A machine was down at a polling site a few blocks away. It turned out it was missing a metal leg. White repaired that in five minutes.

“With that much equipment going out, there’s always going to be little problems,” he said. “The good thing is that 99.9% of the time we can fix it.”

Sometimes batteries run out on printers or machines. Once, he even had to temporarily shut down a poll site to reset half of the malfunctioning machines, angering the 50 people in line.

White has been part of SWAT team for three years; the units are deployed during every election. In anticipation of the high turnout for the presidential election, the registrar doubled the number of teams so each would be within five miles of every poll site.

At 7:20 a.m., White finally got a rest and headed to Starbucks for a caffeine boost. He sat in the van waiting for another call. Most of the problems occur in the morning as the polls open, he said.

The registrar’s office reported that there were no problems related to voting on election day that the tactical units couldn’t solve.

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White, 30, usually does data entry for the registrar’s office, which means sitting in front of a computer screen. He relishes election day, when he “is pumped.”

“I’m just waiting for that big one to happen,” he said.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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