The convenience of early voting has made it increasingly popular. More than 22% of the votes from Los Angeles County in the 2004 general election were cast before election day, and for this election officials expect the percentage could top 25%.
But now one early voter's discovery has highlighted a potential source of error, the kind of error that could result in a voter unknowingly casting a ballot for a presidential candidate other than intended.
Barry Verdi of Sylmar contacted NBC Los Angeles after he noticed something amiss in his early voting packet: the order of the presidential candidates listed on his ballot guide booklet was different from that on the sample ballot he had been mailed earlier. Which meant the ballot line numbers for each candidate had changed. The line numbers are crucial for early voting because--without a polling place voting machine to line up the ballot card with the candidates--the voter uses the line number to find the proper circle to mark on the numbered ballot card.
Uncertain which line numbers were correct, "You go, 'Gosh, I don't know who I'm voting for," said Verdi.
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What had happened became clear when Verdi turned the page of his vote by mail guide booklet and found legislative races for districts in areas where he does not live. He had been sent the wrong booklet for his ballot. Verdi discovered his wife had also received the wrong booklet. Which led him to wonder if it's happened to other voters.
"There have been some isolated cases," said Dean Logan, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for Los Angeles County. After NBC Los Angeles informed Logan late Wednesday afternoon of Verdi's probleme, Logan began an investigation. It was quickly determined that Verdi's early voting packet had been part of a batch of 30 prepared by hand. Logan's office began calling those voters for whom it had numbers, reaching seven who verified they had the correct ballot and guide. One other voter checked and discovered a wrong guidebook.
"This should not have happened. It should have been caught here," said Logan, who explained that automated machines had prepared and checked most of the nearly one million vote by mail packets with a barcode scanner. The rest had been checked by human eyes. "We'll certainly be looking at our procedures to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
In the handfull of cases known to Logan, the voters became aware of the mismatched voting guides before mailing their ballots.
What is not known is if there may have been other isolated cases of voters who got the wrong guide and voted without noticing. Once a mailed ballot has been received, and the hidden ballot removed from the signed outer envelope, it's not possible to go back and identify it.
The election code requires that ballots in different assembly districts list the presidential candidates in different order, so that no candidate has the advantage of appearing in the first position on every ballot. But, as Verdi discovered and Logan acknowledged, it means that a voter unknowingly using the wrong guidebook could vote for the wrong candidate and not even know it.
"That's why it's so important you do have the correct ballot guide to match your ballot because those positions are going to change from one assembly district to the next." Logan said, adding, "We do encourage all vote by mail voters to check their materials very carefully.
In fact, the instructions on the inside cover of all the ballot guides begin with directions on how to locate the ballot number on the ballot card itself , the ballot guide, the ballot sleeve, and the return envelope. The numbers must all match. If not, the voter is advised to call the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk at 562-466-1323 or 800-815-2666. Logan does caution that the closer to the election, the higher the call volume. So callers should be prepared to spend some time on hold.
For this election, the deadline to apply for vote by mail packets came on October 28th, and no more packets are being mailed out. Chance of election day voters receiving the wrong ballot is minimal, given that when a voter goes to a polling place, all the ballots within any one precinct are the same, and inserting the ballot into the voting machine allows the voter to see each candidate's name, and nost just their numbers.
Just a short time ago, the Registar issued a press release in reponse to the KNBC story. Click here to read full press release.