Long, slow lines frustrate San Mateo County voters | News | Almanac Online |


Long, slow lines frustrate San Mateo County voters

New voting system and huge voter turnout were contributing factors, officials say

A cumbersome voting process and technical glitches resulting in long lines frustrated voters in East Palo Alto Tuesday and caused at least one City Council member to question why problems repeatedly plague San Mateo County elections.

Some voters appeared to have left polling stations without voting, while others went from one place to another fruitlessly searching for shorter lines.

"Don't even go there. The wait is horrible. Go to City Hall," one woman said as she left the voting center at the Lewis and Joan Platt East Palo Alto Family YMCA on Bell Street.

The confusion and long lines stumped some East Palo Alto elected officials who arrived as observers.

"This has been a circus," said East Palo Alto City Councilman Carlos Romero, as he shouted for people to stay in line and cast their votes. Anyone in line before the 8 p.m. closing of polls would be allowed to vote, he said.

"This is a regional voting center. This is the southernmost point for voting stations in the county. I've been here for seven hours, and there have been people from Burlingame, Portola Valley, Redwood City and Woodside," he said. "We just have to make it better. In the county of San Mateo, you can vote anywhere. It's a wonderful system with many kinks."

Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, a monitor and Ravenswood City School District Board of Education member, said some people at the YMCA appeared to have given up on voting.

"The line was halfway through the parking lot. Some people left. They can't stay in line all of this time. They have children at home," she said.

Outside East Palo Alto City Hall at 2415 University Ave., City Council candidate Bernardo Huerta and others also observed people waiting in queues and getting frustrated, they said.

"You had to fill out a slip authorizing that you are a voter, go to a laptop and print out your ballot, fill it out and then you get to deposit your electronic ballot. It's very slow," Huerta said.

East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Lisa Gauthier said 45 to 50 people were standing outside City Hall at 8 p.m. when the polls closed.

"Something was not going according to plan," she said.

The system needs to be corrected because there is a risk of disenfranchising voters, Gauthier said.

It's not the first time the county has had problems that have slowed voting. As recently as June, a software glitch made voters have to cast provisional ballots. In other elections, poll workers ran out of official ballots and voters were forced to use provisional ballots.

"This should not be the case in these days. We need to plan accordingly," Gauthier said.

City officials should meet with the county to talk about expectations for the next election, she added.

Jim Irizarry, the county's assistant chief elections officer, said Wednesday that the delays were in part due to the huge number of voters, many of whom arrived at polling places to register conditionally and to cast provisional ballots. There were no issues reported to county election officials regarding any technical problems at the East Palo Alto polling stations, he said.

State Conditional Voter Registration law allows voters to register at the polling place right up to Election Day and to cast a provisional ballot, which is later verified and counted.

It used to be that voters had to register no later than 15 days before the election or they couldn't vote, Irizarry said.

"In East Palo Alto, we had a lot of first-time conditional registrants and voters. They had to fill out a card, have it reviewed, put it in an envelope, then fill out another provisional envelope and ballot that is forwarded to the (election office).

"After verification, then all of those are counted after all of the other ballots that were received before the election and on Election Day by previously registered voters are counted. It's the last step in the process. The process adds a lot of time, and in this election, there was huge turnout."

When finally tallied, the voter turnout "will be incredibly high, and one of the highest I've ever seen," he said.

The county had about 45 percent voter turnout for the June primary, about the same as for the 2014 gubernatorial election, both of which were considered high. He could not put a percentage on Tuesday's turnout, but when the count is finished, it will be in historic numbers, he predicted.

San Mateo County is one of five counties in the state that conducted the election under the 2017 Voter's Choice Act, which requires mailing ballots to all registered voters. It encourages them to vote by mail or return the ballots in drop-off boxes at voting centers. The new system was expected to reduce the need for most polling places and to expedite voting.

The county used to have 205 polling places and 450 precincts during a traditional election. Under the new system, over the course of about a month prior to Election Day the county had open as few as four to as many as 39 on Election Day itself.

Adding to the slowdown, new ballot printers enable voters to cast a ballot at one of the county's regional centers. But the printers take between three to five minutes to print out the particular ballot appropriate for that voter's precinct -- and more time if there's a paper jam. The ballots must be perfectly aligned in the printer and are on thick paper, which can cause problems, Irizarry said.

"If the paper jams, then you have to start over again," he added. But the printers have worked fairly well.

The county also added curbside ballot drop-off stations outside heavily used polling places, including in East Palo Alto. The drop-off stations helped reduce the lines, he said.

"If you look at what happened in Los Angeles County (which also used the new system), people were standing two-and-a-half hours in line because they didn't have the network we had," he said.

Officials have 30 days to certify the election. Irizarry said they will need that month. He expects that officials will probably have a good handle on the total count in the next two weeks. After then, they'll do a 1 percent manual tally of the ballots and test it for accuracy before certifying the election.

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