Thursday, November 16, 2006
A volunteer poll watcher says election officials specifically directed poll workers not to tell voters they had the option of using paper ballots in last Tuesday’s election.
This is not illegal. But, says poll watcher Susan Sisson, it’s not exactly democracy in action, either.
“The length of the line didn’t matter,” Sisson says. “It didn’t matter that people were walking away. The instruction was clear: No paper ballots. If someone asked for one, workers were supposed to discourage it. In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On Nov. 7, Sisson worked as a poll watcher for the Democratic Party at a North Salinas precinct. “We didn’t have enough machines, and people were waiting 45 minutes, an hour, to vote,” Sisson says.
She says poll workers called elections officials for guidance, and a field inspector came out to the precinct.
“He didn’t care about the lines or the waits,” she says. “He had one message: ‘They can wait. Do not offer paper ballots.’ He didn’t want voters to be told they had an option instead of waiting.
“That was the instruction he gave everyone: ‘You will not tell anyone about paper ballots, period.’ It wasn’t a secret. We all talked about it.”
Despite the warning, Sisson says she did tell a friend in line that he could avoid the long wait and request a paper ballot.
The backlash, Sisson says, came fast.
“Don’t tell voters about the paper ballots,” Sisson says she was scolded after she defied the directive by giving the friend the tip. “The threat was clear: If I told another voter they had the option to use paper, I would be thrown out of the precinct.”
The result, according to Sisson, was a decrease in voter turnout. Sisson says she watched dozens of voters, hour after hour, quit waiting and leave without voting.
“It was very hard to watch,” Sisson says. “I wanted to yell, ‘No, don’t go. Please just vote,’ but I couldn’t.”
As a poll watcher, Sisson’s job was to immediately report the situation to the Democratic Party. Chairman Vinz Koller says Sisson did just that, and the club’s lawyer, Barbara Kautz, contacted Acting Registrar of Voters Claudio Valenzuela. “We were told that he would immediately take care of it,” Koller says.
Valenzuela denies that anyone from the Democratic Party contacted him. But Valenzuela admits his office specifically avoided offering voters the option of using paper ballots.
“Anyone who insists on voting on paper, they can vote on paper,” he says. “Do we offer it? Encourage it? No. They’re for emergencies. We vote on electronic machines; that’s how this county is set up. The day my bosses tell me otherwise, I’ll change it.”
Sisson says she was told paper ballots were simply too much trouble.
“And I had to wonder who they were too much trouble for,” she says. “Election officials who implemented that policy had it backwards. They were serving themselves instead of voters. They were saying, ‘Here, make it easier for us later. Do it our way.’”
Valenzuela explains that unusually long lines countywide were due in part to a particularly lengthy ballot and voters printing two and three copies of their ballots. “We ran out of paper in a lot of machines,” he says.
But Sisson blames machines for the long waits on election day.
“We timed it,” she says. “It took the average voter almost eight minutes to complete. With three machines, that’s only 24 people per hour. Paper could have fixed that.”
Despite Sisson’s claims, Valenzuela says the 1,600 paper ballots cast in this election were three to four times the usual number of paper ballots cast, though not surprising considering roughly 60 percent of all registered voters in Monterey County voted. The record turnout will mean Valenzuela likely won’t certify the election results much before the Dec. 4 deadline.
As Valenzuela and his staff continue to press on, half a dozen races countywide are still too close for any candidate to declare victory.
In Monterey, City Council candidate Nancy Selfridge holds a 164-vote lead over opponent Ralph Widmar, according to the latest figures. In Salinas, challenger Tony Barrera leads incumbent Councilman Robert Ocampo by 47 votes. In Soledad and Gonzales, only 14 and 17 votes, respectively, separate council candidates. And in Sand City, in a tight race for two seats on the City Council, Craig Hubler leads with 24 votes, Jerry Blackwelder’s got 22, Chris Monypeny’s in third place with 19, and Bjorn Lundegard trails with 16.
In some of these races contestants lead with fewer votes than the number of people Sisson says she saw leaving just her precinct on election night without casting a ballot.
“We did what we could,” Valenzuela says. “We trained all of our workers, we gave them what they needed, and they deserve credit for their hard work. Nobody was denied the right to vote. Nobody. If you walked out because you were tired and didn’t want to wait, that was your choice. We can’t do anything about that.”
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||30,907||
Number of votes by which incumbent Jerry L. Blackwelder defeated opponent Chris Monypeny in last week’s race for City Council in Sand City. Blackwelder, who was re-elected along with Craig Hubler, received 22 votes; Monypeny received 19. Source: Monterey County Elections.