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Politics

Did you have trouble voting Tuesday? Some poll workers say they’re not surprised

Venice Beach voters
Westsiders cast their votes Tuesday at the polling place inside the lifeguard headquarters in Venice Beach.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Andy Liberman was excited to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. So excited, in fact, that the 66-year-old mental health advocate wanted to go a step further to be part of the election itself — he became a poll worker.

But when Tuesday arrived, Liberman’s enthusiasm dimmed when a host of problems cropped up at his Venice election site, which ran out of Democratic ballots. Voters required so many different kinds of ballots “it was difficult at first to realize what the correct ballot was to give them,” Liberman said, adding that he got about two hours of training beforehand.

And some independent voters were surprised to discover that they had accidentally registered with the ultraconservative American Independent Party, Liberman said. Because of that, they couldn’t vote for Sanders in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary, which was open only to registered Democrats and no-party-preference voters.

The election day issues were exhausting to Liberman and other poll workers around Los Angeles County who contacted The Times about their frustrations. They reported poll sites flooded by first-time voters and occasionally plagued by malfunctioning vote-scanning machines and incomplete voter rolls.

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“Immediately after doing it I swore to myself I wouldn’t do the work again,” Liberman said of volunteering, adding that he put in 16 hours of work. Despite the long day, Liberman said he’s considering helping again in November’s general election.

The Times covered some of the issues that led to voter confusion, and common themes emerged: Sometimes voters showed up at polling sites and were told they weren’t listed on the voter rolls even though they had registered. Some were told they were registered for the wrong party, or that they had registered to vote by mail when they hadn’t.

Those voters were told to use pink provisional ballots, which can take longer to fill out with personal information and longer for election officials to verify and count.

Not all of L.A. County’s 4,700 polling sites experienced problems, and for many of the county’s nearly 5-million registered voters, voting went smoothly. But The Times interviewed several voters at troubled sites who left the polls wondering whether their votes counted. On social media, Sanders supporters raised the specter of alleged voter suppression — rumors that officials want to dispel.

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“There’s a lot of conspiracies and misinformation that’s being distributed around,” said Brenda Duran, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, which administers elections.

A series of interviews with L.A. County poll workers painted an occasionally chaotic picture of Tuesday’s primary.

Against the backdrop of an unusually emotional presidential primary, temporary volunteer workers put in long days  with light training and for a small stipend. Although the county’s election guide is 111 pages long, poll clerks aren’t required to attend training — poll inspectors get 2 ½-hour sessions. Inspectors have to pick up the voting equipment, set up their sites and clean up at the end of the night.

On Tuesday, some sites encountered vote-scanning machines that didn’t work and missing-in-action poll volunteers.

“We didn’t have any help, the machines didn’t work, we got no help from above,” said Mary Lou Cook, a longtime polling inspector whose fellow volunteers failed to show up at her east Long Beach precinct. To pick up the slack, she said she worked the site for 15 hours with her husband.

“We were there until midnight and we got home just before 1 o’clock in the morning,” she said, calling the election unusually chaotic.

Poll workers were also confronted by complicated primary rules that placed different restrictions on voting for Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. Voters had to register Republican to vote for Donald Trump, for instance. But no-party-preference voters could vote for Sanders or Hillary Clinton — as long as they requested a “crossover” ballot. 

“The rules for the primary, how do I say it, they’re convoluted,” said Anne Bannon, a temporary poll worker whose job as coordinator involves troubleshooting  problems for inspectors. “They’re really tough rules. It’s hard even if you know what you’re doing.”

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The complexities of those guidelines were compounded by state election rules that intended to maximize participation. Late party registration deadlines, which met a surge of registrations in California, were followed by reports that voter rolls were not always complete at L.A. County’s thousands of far-flung voting sites on election day.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County registrar-recorder Dean Logan said there were “isolated” occasions where supplemental voter rosters weren’t brought to the polls.

In addition, those who vote by mail can decide to cast ballots at polling sites. California voters can go to any polling site in their county, but they have to fill out a provisional ballot, taking time and instruction from poll workers.

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For the record

June 11, 7:42 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Californians could cast provisional ballots at any polling place in the state. Voters may vote provisionally at any polling place in their county.

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In particular, there was “a lot of confusion” about vote-by-mail ballots, said Amy Gottstein, 48, a poll inspector in Santa Monica. “People would say, ‘Yeah, I requested it, but I never received it.’”

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Some sites were slowed down Tuesday morning by poll-scanning machines that check ballots for errors. Poll workers reported that some machines unexpectedly required a password when they were booted up that morning, diverting workers to troubleshoot as voters arrived.

Voters often misunderstand that vote-scanning machines are not vote-counting machines, which left some voters at those sites wondering whether their votes would be counted, The Times found.

“When you have all these snags, it just compounds everything,” said Gottstein, who said her precinct had a malfunctioning machine and two poll volunteers who didn’t show up. “It was insanity.”

Duran, the county elections spokeswoman, said problems with the vote-scanning machines were “scattered” and that officials were looking into the malfunctions. She said that the election probably went smoothly for most voters.

“Some of this, I think, is just probably just the nature of something when you’ve got an important election — high turnout,” said Glenn Bailey, a 60-year-old poll worker who worked at a precinct in Chatsworth. “In our case, no one was turned away. We found a way to let everyone vote.”

L.A. County’s voting machines are on track to be replaced by a touch-screen system in 2020. It’s yet to be seen whether the reboot will mitigate problems in the next primary election.

“Our hope is to introduce and implement a new voting system that will deliver an improved and engaging voting experience, one that will leave a positive mark on voters no matter how big or small the election,” Logan said in a statement Friday.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @mattdpearce

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