Voters voice frustration over provisional ballots, broken machines and a roving chicken

An election volunteer receives a provisional ballot from a voter at the Midnight Mission on skid row.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)

In a country with a heightened sense of anxiety over the sanctity of elections, officials were thankful Tuesday when election day in Los Angeles provided voters with some frustrations, but overall didn’t keep people from voting in some capacity.

The most pervasive complaint involved voters arriving to polling places to cast their ballots and being told they should have received vote-by-mail ballots.

When Virginia Stewart went to vote at a school about a block from her Santa Clarita home, she was told she had asked to vote by mail. A poll worker offered to let her vote using a provisional ballot.


As she waited for her provisional ballot, Stewart said four more people came into her polling place and were surprised when they were told the same thing.

Perplexed, Stewart and her husband, Alex Britton, called the county registrar’s office. They were told that an issue could have occurred when Stewart got a new driver’s license in June and either switched or was switched to permanently vote by mail. Stewart said she checks and reads her mail every day, and said she never received a ballot in the mail.

“Everybody had the same reaction — ‘What do you mean I’m vote by mail? I’m not [signed up to] vote by mail,’” said Stewart, 50. “If they were expecting to vote by mail, first of all they wouldn’t have showed up to vote.”

“I have never seen so many pink provisional ballot envelopes at our polling place,” said Britton, 60.

When asked about Stewart’s situation, officials with the Department of Motor Vehicles checked her DMV records and found that when Stewart registered in late June for Real ID, the federally compliant driver’s license, she was then registered to vote by mail.

“Her signed summary page on file indicates she selected vote by mail,” as does the record that was sent to the secretary of state, a DMV spokesperson said in an email.

Los Angeles County Registrar Dean Logan said this issue generated the most calls to his office, but it was unclear what caused the problem.

Logan said it was important to remember that although people were frustrated, they were still able to cast provisional ballots. California generally counts between 80% to 90% of provisional ballots.

“This is not unusual for this election, but often times it surprises people — because of the conditional voter registration, provisional voting and the high rate of vote-by-mail ballots today, there will be a significant volume of ballots that remain to be counted after we finish tonight,” Logan said, noting that officials have 30 days from Tuesday to certify the election.

Several voters took to Twitter to voice concerns about malfunctioning machines at their polling places.

But the devices often referred to as “voting machines” do not actually count votes.

Rather, those machines, known as precinct ballot readers, tell a poll worker if a ballot is blank or has too many of its selection bubbles filled in. When a machine finds one of these issues, a voter is given the opportunity to correct the ballot.

Every polling place in Los Angeles County has a precinct ballot reader. If the precinct ballot reader isn’t working, votes are still secure and will be counted, officials say.

“In L.A. County, precinct ballot readers assist voters, but do not count ballots,” said Brenda Duran, a spokeswoman for the county registrar’s office. “After the polls close, ballots are securely transported to our headquarters to be counted. Even if a precinct ballot reader is down, this does not affect the way any vote is counted.”

This will probably be the last election that voters see those machines, which are expected to be replaced in 2020 when L.A. transitions from traditional neighborhood polling places to a smaller number of all-purpose “voting centers.”

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Across the county there were isolated problems but no reports Tuesday of systemic failures that kept swaths of voters from casting their ballots.

In typical L.A. fashion, a film crew had a permit for several feet of parking near a polling place in Eagle Rock. Officials at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation alerted their traffic officers, who relaxed their enforcement in the area.

In Cudahy, a chicken walked into a polling site and distracted voters enough that they complained to county election officials.

At least one L.A. voter reported being turned away at the polls for wearing politically oriented clothing.

Meika Strabone, 31, of West L.A. arrived at Felicia Mahood Multipurpose Center about 9:30 a.m. with her husband and 7-month-old baby. Strabone, poised to cast her ballot, wore a navy T-shirt that read “Hear Our Vote” on the front and “Colorado Women’s March” on the back.

While the family waited in line, Strabone said a poll worker approached her and said her shirt was a form of electioneering. In California, voters cannot wear apparel to the polls that advocates for a particular candidate or ballot measure.

“I didn’t really want to make a big deal out of it, so I offered to go home and change,” Strabone said.

So that’s what she did.

Before returning to the polls, Strabone said she did some research that confirmed her shirt did not violate electioneering laws. Nevertheless, she returned to the polling place wearing a plain white T-shirt.

This article was reported in conjunction with ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitors voting problems around the country. If you had trouble voting, or if you saw something you want to tell us about, here’s how.

Times staff writers Laura Newberry and John Myers contributed to this report.