‘It was just chaos’: Broken machines, incomplete voter rolls leave some wondering whether their ballots will count

Voters line up at 7 a.m. to cast their ballots at the Super Suds Laundromat in Long Beach.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

California voters faced a tough time at the polls Tuesday, with many voters saying they have encountered broken machines, polling sites that opened late and incomplete voter rolls, particularly in Los Angeles County.

The result? Instead of a quick in-and-out vote, many California voters were handed the dreaded pink provisional ballot — which takes longer to fill out, longer for election officials to verify and which tends to leave voters wondering whether their votes will be counted.

This year’s presidential primary race has already been one of the most bitter in recent memory. Before Tuesday’s vote, Bernie Sanders supporters accused the media of depressing Democratic turnout by calling the nomination for Hillary Clinton before polls opened in California.

Those feelings haven’t gotten any less raw Tuesday as hundreds of Californians complained of voting problems to the national nonpartisan voter hotline run by the Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law.

It’s difficult to get a sense for how widespread the problems are or how they compare to recent elections. But experts said the culprit for Tuesday’s voting problems seems to be a confluence of factors — old voting machines, a competitive election that has drawn new voters, plus complex state voting laws that can be hard for poll volunteers and voters to follow.

“Presidential primary elections in California are the hardest elections of all. … This election reminds me of 2008 in that regard,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “Our voter registration deadline is 15 days before election day, and that gives all the counties, and especially L.A. County, very little time to get their polling place rosters updated with all the voters.”

When Sanders supporter Brandon Silverman, 29, showed up at his polling station in Echo Park at 8:15 a.m., he said poll workers immediately handed him a provisional ballot, explaining that their machine wasn’t working yet. The full list of voters’ names for the precincts also seemed to be missing.

Silverman, an assistant television editor, quickly called a Sanders voter hotline and L.A. County voting officials. About 45 minutes later, the problems seemed to be resolved and he was able to cast a regular ballot, he said. But the chaos shook his confidence in the fairness of the electoral process a little, especially after hearing other precincts and states struggle with voting problems this year.

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“I tend to agree with most of the Bernie supporters who are disappointed in the media’s handling of the superdelegate counts, but I tend to shy away from the people saying it’s ‘stolen’ or ‘rigged,’” Silverman said. “I’d like to not think the worst, but at a certain point you think, is it a coincidence?” 

In Bell, Albert Grey showed up at his polling site Tuesday morning to find that the vote-counting machine seemed to be jammed, and there didn’t seem to be a supervisor on site. So he left without voting.


June 9, 1:51 p.m.: This article makes reference to vote-counting machines. They are vote-scanning machines and check for ballot errors.

“I still have my ballot, I’m going to go back, see if the machine is working, and if it is, I’m going to vote,” Grey said.

On social media, many California voters reported showing up to their polling sites only to find that their names were not listed on the voting rolls, leaving them to cast a provisional ballot. 

Sanders supporter Jonathan Daniel Brown accused Democrats of “purging votes” when he discovered he was not on the voting rolls at his polling station despite being registered.

Brown, an actor, refused to take a provisional ballot, and his complaints drew the attention of Los Angeles County Registrar-County Clerk Dean Logan, who intervened. Eventually, Brown said he was allowed to cast a regular ballot — though not before Brown said a poll worker called the police on him.

Los Angeles County’s 4,700 polling locations have to handle rosters for 4.9-million voters. The process can be complicated as many of the voters on those rosters can register or switch their party preferences up to 15 days before the election.

In an interview with The Times, Logan said there were some instances where supplemental rosters of new voters didn’t seem to make it to the polls on time, and so voters have gotten frustrated with having to take provisional ballots.

“There’s no doubt there’s an emotional element to this,” Logan said, alluding to the passions around the presidential campaign. “It is very unusual in California that we have candidates for president who are here the day before an election.”

Although some voters hesitate to take provisional ballots because they aren’t counted immediately, about 85 to 90% of provisional ballots are typically found to be legitimate and are counted toward the final, official vote, Logan said.

“We look at every one of those ballots,” Logan said. If a ballot is legitimate, he said, “Then that ballot does get counted.”

Writer Allison Bloom, 41, took her kids with her when she went to vote at the Kahal Joseph Congregation synagogue in Westwood on Tuesday morning.

“I wanted to show them what voting means,” Bloom said. But when she arrived, she said workers couldn’t boot up the vote-counting machine. Bloom left behind her ballot, with a worker promising it would be counted.

Bloom said her kids asked, “Is this what it’s always like?”

“It was just chaos,” Bloom said. “It was kind of an unfortunate first experience at the polls for them.”

Follow @mattdpearce on Twitter



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