We’re Still Waiting for the Berkeley Results: By HENRY NORR

Tuesday November 16, 2004

The Daily Planet’s Nov. 5 story on the problem of uncounted ballots (“Thousands of Ballots Still to Be Counted”) didn’t tell the half of it—or probably even a quarter of it. 

The reality is that not “several” but many thousands of Berkeley ballots—possibly a third or more of all ballots cast in the city—weren’t included in the results released on election night and reported in the media. 

In fact, two weeks after the election, an unknown but clearly substantial percentage of Berkeley voters still haven’t had their votes counted. And that group includes many more than the 5,000 students and others who had to cast provisional ballots because they registered at the last minute and therefore weren’t included on the voter rolls. 

Take the south Berkeley precinct where I was inspector (poll worker in charge) on election day. By the end of the day, the six electronic voting machines there had recorded, if I remember correctly, 377 votes in all. But we also collected an astonishing 301 provisional ballots, plus about 80 absentee ballots. 

In other words, just about half of those who voted in that precinct that day cast their votes on paper, and none of those votes were included in the results announced election night. By now the Registrar of Voters’ office should have posted updated county totals that include virtually all the absentee ballots, but as of the end of last week, provisional ballots still hadn’t been counted, according to Assistant Registrar Elaine Ginnold. 

The 301 provisional ballots cast at my precinct represented several categories of voters. Some came from the group the Planet story focused on: those who registered close to the deadline. Others were from voters who said they had registered early but whose names were still missing from the rolls. (Many of these people said they had registered at the DMV—evidently there are major glitches in the “Motor Voter” system.) Still others were voters who were required to cast provisional ballots because they were voting outside their home precinct. (Within Alameda County, registered voters can vote in any precinct, but if you choose to vote at a polling place other than the one where you’re registered, you have to use a provisional ballot; if you vote in a different city, you don’t get to vote for measures and officials specific to your hometown.) 


Paper or plastic? 

By far the largest group of provisional ballots, however, came from voters who were on the precinct rolls and could have used the touchscreen machines, but chose instead to request a paper ballot. They were taking advantage of an option mandated last spring by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley after computer scientists and others raised serious questions about the security of paperless voting machines—and after the manufacturer of Alameda County’s machines, Diebold, was found to have flagrantly violated state procedures. 

It’s water under the bridge now, but I think it’s an outrage that Registrar of Voters Brad Clark turned to provisional ballots to comply with Shelley’s order—and that Shelley’s office accepted this solution. Provisional ballots are for voters whose status is in question. Duly registered voters opting for paper should have been given a non-provisional ballot to mark and deposit in a ballot box. 

That approach would have had at least two advantages: First, voters choosing paper wouldn’t have had to give up their right to a secret ballot. (Provisional and absentee ballots are not really secret, since you have to sign the envelope.) Second, such ballots could have been counted immediately with optical scanners, the way a majority of jurisdictions around the state and nation did it, and we could have had much more complete results on election night. 

Looking Ahead 

If all goes according to plan, voters who insist on verifiable paper ballots won’t have to settle for second-class citizenship next time. Before the 2006 primaries, according to regulations issued by Secretary of State Shelley and a law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, Alameda and other counties that use touchscreens will have to retrofit their machines so they generate a voter-verifiable paper ballot. At that point, it seems, we’ll no longer have the option of requesting a simple paper ballot—everyone (except absentee voters and those required to cast provisional ballots because their status is unclear) will have to use the machines. 

If that’s the case, I hope the county is budgeting to buy a lot more machines, or planning to do a lot more than it did this year to encourage absentee and early voting. In the precinct where I worked, all six machines were in use almost constantly from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 2, even though about half our voters didn’t use them If we’d had to accommodate all those voters on six machines, the lines would have stretched for blocks and we’d have had to keep the polls open until 3 or 4 in the morning. 


Henry Norr is is the San Francisco Chronicle’s loss and Berkeley’s gain.?