Elections

Polling problems lead to rare emergency hearing in Stanislaus County

People gather at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters in downtown Modesto, Calif. just before 8pm as voters rush to get their ballots in Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018.
People gather at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters in downtown Modesto, Calif. just before 8pm as voters rush to get their ballots in Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018. mbicek@modbee.com

A rare, last-minute legal pitch to keep polls throughout Stanislaus County open longer was denied by a Superior Court judge shortly before polls closed at 8 p.m.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Robert Westbrook turned down the request to provide more time for voting.

About a dozen polling places ran out of the pink envelopes used to designate provisional ballots and in some cases voters were told they had to go elsewhere to vote, said Lisa Battista, a Modesto attorney who organized a group of about 50 election observers in Stanislaus County through the auspices of the California Democratic Party.

“This problem caused delays and long lines and some voters were certainly frustrated and left without voting in addition to the ones who were specifically turned away,” Battista said in a phone interview. “I’m absolutely certain there was a lot of voter disenfranchisement today.”

Provisional ballots are offered to voters whose registration cannot be verified at a polling place. Those reasons can include people who are registered to vote at another polling place or who have recently moved or registered to vote.

These ballots are placed in pick envelopes to separate them from regular ballots so they can be verified later. Google reported a surge in people using the search term “provisional ballots” in Modesto, Oakdale and Ceres.

Lee Lundrigan, county clerk and registrar, disputed Battista’s claim, saying no one wanting to vote was denied.

Large numbers of people showed up to vote whose registration status was in question, Lundrigan said. Those who were not registered before Tuesday were given the option of voting provisionally at a polling place, or going to her main office on I Street in downtown Modesto, where they could register and then cast what’s called a conditional vote, she said.

“There were well over 1,000 here” in that category, Lundrigan said in a telephone interview, “but it felt like 100,000. We’ve never seen this many voters show up at the main office on voting day. Never.”

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By contrast, about 20 people asked to vote conditionally at the main office in the June Primary, she said.

Battista said the hearing was prompted when she filed an emergency motion after hearing repeated complaints of people having trouble with provisional ballots. It’s an indication that voting in Stanislaus County, where GOP Rep. Jeff Denham was challenged by Democrat Josh Harder, was on an upswing Tuesday.

Another problem was reported at a polling site in Turlock, which reportedly ran out of ballots.

Leslie Brewer and her daughter were registered to vote and arrived about 7:15 p.m. at her polling place at the Turlock Crossroads Church in the east part of town. About 15 minutes later, she said, poll workers informed them that they only had four ballots left, Brewer said.

At that time, about 20 to 25 people were waiting in line to vote at the polling place, according to Brewer.

“There were people coming in, and they were being told there were no more ballots left,” Brewer told The Modesto Bee in a phone interview Tuesday night.

She said the poll workers were polite and trying their best to help, but they told the voters in line that they couldn’t guarantee when more ballots could arrive at the polling place. The poll workers wrote down the voters’ names and phone numbers and tried “to make this right,” Brewer said. Some voters, upon being told ballots were running out, left.

She and her daughter waited in line for another several minutes before they went to their parked car nearby. A few minutes before the polls were scheduled to close at 8 p.m., a poll worker walked outside to Brewer’s car.

The poll worker told them that polls were about to close, but they could wait inside the polling place. Brewer said she and her daughter decided to leave without voting, because her daughter had a babysitter waiting at home with her children.

She said the babysitter would only be available until 8:15 p.m. Voters who lined up at polling places before 8 p.m. are allowed to remain in line beyond 8 p.m. until they cast their ballot.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

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