Nitty-gritty of democracy carries on

Linthicum is a Times staff writer.

Two weeks after election day, Kenneth Bennett and Paul Drugan were standing together at the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office in Norwalk, gazing through a window that looks into the ballot-counting room.

Inside, under pale fluorescent light, workers moved like zombies, feeding ballot after ballot into machines with endless appetites.

To Bennett and Drugan, this was a happy sight. They smiled like proud new fathers in a neonatal ward as they watched the nation’s largest vote-counting effort unfold.


“It’s a slow, tedious process,” Bennett, the manager in charge of the count, admitted merrily.

“It’s like a treadmill. You just keep going and going,” Drugan, a spokesman for the office, said with a laugh.

This is what democracy looks like after candidates have finished stumping and voters have gone home. Although workers toiling 12 hours a day have already counted more than 3 million votes, about 200,000 vote-by-mail and provisional ballots still have to be processed. Officials say they expect to be counting right up until Dec. 2, when they’re required by law to hand over the final tally to the county Board of Supervisors.

The registrar-recorder oversaw the counting of almost 2.7 million votes on election night -- votes mainly cast that day at the polls. But mail-in and provisional ballots take longer to process -- and about 600,000 remained. Election workers have spent much of their time opening vote-by-mail envelopes and verifying that people who cast provisional ballots had the right to do so, Bennett said. That’s what they do most days of the week. On Tuesdays and Fridays, they count ballots.

“It’s like opening a new present,” Drugan said of the new vote tallies, released at the end of each counting day. “Every Tuesday and Friday, it’s like Christmas.”

Drugan stopped by Tuesday to find out how many ballots were expected to be counted that day (the day’s totals: 65,000 vote-by-mails and 45,000 provisionals). He said he planned to pass on the numbers to county officials who were keeping an eye on tight races.

Take Measure H, which would allow construction of a Waldorf-Astoria hotel and two condo towers in Beverly Hills. The Friday after the election, it was losing by six votes. As of Tuesday, it was winning by 14.

Because elections can hinge on such razor-thin margins, Bennett said, vote counters have to be vigilant -- and delicate.

“They have to be pretty ginger with the vote-by-mail ballots,” he said. “We don’t drink and we don’t eat around the ballots. We do not need grease on the ballots.”

But, he added, “I don’t think we have a gum restriction.”

Most election workers are employed part time by the county, he said. A whole network of people -- of all ages, races and ethnicities -- make a living from elections.

About 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, a throng of workers was let out of the counting room briefly for a 15-minute break. They streamed out like schoolchildren on recess, laughing, reaching for cellphones, chatting in English and Spanish.

They passed by Carol Slavin, 65, a volunteer from the League of Women Voters who was watching the ballot counting from the window, keeping an eye out for problems.

“You guys have been doing a great job,” she told one worker. “Keep up the good work.”

After two hours of observing, Slavin said she hadn’t seen anything suspicious.

“Some people think there is cheating, but not me,” she said. “There are mistakes made, but only because these people are sitting in this room for 12 hours a day, with two 15-minute breaks and an hour lunch.”

She paused for a moment, looked out at the room full of workers and said, “What a boring job.”