In Maze of Voting Districts Polling Stations Can Vanish: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday October 15, 2004

Editor’s Note: A portion of this article ran in the Oct. 8 issue. It is rerun here in its entirety: 


When Michael Shaub moved into his home in North Berkeley last year, he didn’t know his pricey new address would cost him the chance to vote in Berkeley on Election Day. 

Shaub, much to his chagrin, is one of 485 Berkeley voters to receive notice from the Registrar of Voters this week that if they wanted to vote in the upcoming election they have little choice other than filling out an absentee ballot and mailing it in. 

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “There’s a certain comfort in going to the polling station and knowing your vote is going to be counted.” 

Shaub and other affected voters all live in three enclaves criss-crossed by a half-dozen regional and municipal electoral districts. 

The problem, said Alameda County Registrar of Voters Bradley Clark, is that “when all these jurisdictions like AC Transit and BART draw their boundary lines they don’t talk to each other and we end up with these weird little precincts.” 

State law requires that a precinct have 250 registered voters to qualify for a polling station, Clark said. The three Berkeley precincts in question, he added, could not be consolidated into neighboring ones because the neighboring precincts were in different electoral districts and had different candidates on the ballot. To avoid confusion polling stations must all provide identical ballots, he said. 

“This is so common for us, we don’t give it a second thought,” said Clark. Previously most of the absentee voting precincts were in sparsely populated regions of the county, primarily the eastern hills, but as more jurisdictions have sprouted up, nearly every city has affected areas. 

But the policy was disturbing news to Carrie Olson, Shaub’s mother-in-law, and the Chief Operating Officer of MoveOn.org. 

“To have a further impediment to voting come up right in our own backyard is troubling,” said Olson. She feared that like her son-in-law, many voters’ first impulse would be to disregard the envelope marked “Absentee Ballot” because they believed they had an assigned polling station. 

“I think there will be a lot of people who won’t know they can’t vote until Election Day when it might be too late,” she said. 

Shaub who lives on Ada Street, just west of Sacramento Street, finds himself in a several block electoral pocket carved out by district boundaries for the City Council and the Peralta Community College District.  

Since redistricting in 1990, City Council District 5 extends west of Sacramento Street to include Shaub’s home and several blocks from Ada Street to the Albany border and from Sacramento Street west to Acton Street. But Peralta sets its district border on Sacramento Street, leaving Shaub and the other residents of District 5 just west of Sacramento in an electoral no man’s land every four years when both seats are contested. 

“That’s terrible,” said District 5 Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who said none of her constituents had complained to her about not having a polling station. She said her office would remind residents that they needed to vote via absentee ballot. 

Another precinct without a polling station is bounded by Sacramento to the east, Acton to the west, University Avenue to the north and Allston Way to the south. Again in that case, the conflict is between boundaries drawn by Peralta and the City Council.  

Peralta changed its district boundaries in 2000, but neither Susan Duncan, the Peralta trustee, who represents residents north of Sacramento, nor District spokesperson Jeff Hyman knew if Peralta had previously used a boundary other than Sacramento Street. Darryl Moore, the other Peralta trustee representing Berkeley, was unavailable for comment. 

The third affected precinct is two square blocks bounded by Shattuck to the east, Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the west, Dwight Way to the north and Blake Street to the south. Those two blocks were moved in 2001 from City Council District 3 to District 4. The City Council border now conflicts with districts drawn for the BART Board of Directors, which divides two districts at Dwight. 

Although some Berkeley voters won’t have a polling station, the city will have 85 stations in November—five more than for the election last March, Clark said. But as the ranks of absentee voters continues to rise—190,000 voters have registered to vote by mail this year, compared to 9,000 just four years ago—the county might reduce the number of stations in future elections, he added. 

On Election Day, voters deprived of a polling station can vote in person at the registrar of voters office in Oakland or vote in any neighboring polling station by filling out a ballot. Every race the voter is eligible to vote on would be counted, Clark said. 

In recent years voters like Shaub could have voted in person before Election Day at City Hall, but that option isn’t available this year. Clark said Secretary of State Kevin Shelley didn’t certify the county’s system in time to set up early voting booths.