Stanislaus County supervisor expects CEO’s office will look into ballot blunder

Election staff Mary Nickles and Alex Chang work with ballots Wednesday (06-22-16) at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters office in downtown Modesto.
Election staff Mary Nickles and Alex Chang work with ballots Wednesday (06-22-16) at the Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters office in downtown Modesto. jlee@modbee.com

Ron Hurst of Modesto was as confused as other voters who participated in the June 7 primary election.

Arriving at his polling place, Hurst was told by an election worker that he was an inactive voter and had to vote with a provisional ballot, which would not be counted with the election day returns.

An inactive voter? Hurst, 29, said he has voted in every election since turning 18, and certainly voted for himself when he ran for a Modesto City Council seat last November.

“I am disturbed by how much was wrong with this year’s election,” Hurst said. “I know some people who were registered as Democrats and were sent the Republican primary forms.”

Plenty of voters from across California were confused by the primary election. The nonpartisan Election Protection voter hotline, a nationwide service, received more than 1,300 calls from voters June 7, with the complaints ranging from polls that opened late to failed voting equipment, issues with mail ballots and election workers providing inaccurate information. More than half the complaints were from California.

In Stanislaus County, some elements of the state’s presidential primary didn’t make sense to residents, such as crossover voting. People registered under “no-party preference” were allowed to cross over and vote for a presidential candidate who was a Democrat, American Independent or Libertarian, but they needed to obtain a ballot for that particular party.

Crossover voting did not change their registration status. However, some nonpartisans who wished to vote for a Republican presidential candidate were upset to learn they needed to re-register as Republican.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said confusion reigned throughout California largely because of the growing number of no-party preference voters and the huge numbers who vote by mail.

“In this election, we had 2.2 million voters who are (nonpartisan) and vote by mail, and about 85 percent of them did not return the postcard asking if they wanted a crossover ballot to vote in the presidential primary,” Alexander said. For the majority who did not use that postcard, the procedures varied from county to county on how those voters should obtain a crossover ballot, she said.

Another big problem was that the deadline to register to vote or switch parties fell only 15 days before Election Day, while mail ballots are sent out 30 days before the election. A person who switched parties might end up with two ballots and not understand which one to use. It also created a rush in preparing accurate rosters for polling places, Alexander said.

A major mistake occurred in Stanislaus County when 24,000 misprinted vote-by-mail ballots were sent to Republican voters in Modesto and the Oakdale area. When the blunder was discovered in May, the county Registrar of Voters sent replacement ballots to affected voters, telling them to use the replacements and yellow envelopes, instead of the original ballots and green envelopes.

The county letter did not explain what was wrong with the first ballots, which were missing the races for Republican Central Committee for Districts 1 and 4.

County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said Tuesday he expects the chief executive’s office will investigate what went wrong and how to ensure it does not happen again.

The Southern California company that printed the ballots accepted responsibility for the error and the cost of replacement ballots. The county may need a way to proofread printed ballots before they are sent in the mail.

“I don’t think the county did anything wrong, but we will need to have checks and balances to do a better job,” Chiesa said. “I wouldn’t want to have Lee (Lundrigan’s) job. It was difficult with so many people being able to register just before the election. Whether it was someone else’s mistake or our mistake, we have to do better.”

Lundrigan said election workers were challenged this time by new election laws and the choices offered to voters. “It makes it very difficult to work at the polls,” she said.

Lundrigan said her office checked out a number of complaints from voters, who said they received mail ballots that did not match their party preference. In 100 percent of the cases, she said, voters were mistaken about their past registration decisions and the right ballot was provided based on their registration information.

Her office investigated Hurst’s complaint and found he was placed on inactive status after election mail sent to him was returned unopened. A staff member said it’s an identity-theft precaution and Hurst became active again by voting June 7.

More than two weeks after Election Day, the Registrar of Voters continues to review 6,000 provisional ballots to make sure those people didn’t vote twice. As of Monday, other uncounted ballots included 2,070 vote-by-mail ballots received after Election Day and postmarked on time; 2,880 damaged, military or absentee ballots; and 400 unprocessed mail ballots.

The final count may not be done until next week.

The tally could conceivably change the outcome for Mylinda Mason, who needs to close a 159-vote gap to win a Republican Central Committee seat. She was among seven people who ran for five seats in the Modesto district.

Mason was undecided on challenging the election on the assumption that a significant number of people voted with flawed ballots, which did not have the contest. Lundrigan said Wednesday that fewer than 2,000 people voted with the ballots missing the Central Committee races.

Mason was more vocal about a major Republican donor’s influence on the Central Committee election. Charles Munger Jr., the physicist son of Warren Buffett’s billionaire partner in Berkshire Hathaway, spent $7,700 on fliers, as of May 17, promoting a slate of District 4 candidates including John Walker, Michael Wood, William Mussman, David Wright and Joseph Day, who are the current leaders.

Mason, a committee alternate, said her years spent on the Central Committee are second only to Chairman Jim DeMartini. She claimed she was left off the slate because her staunch conservative views are now out of step with the state’s Republican Party.

“The election is being manipulated by people at the top and people who have money,” Mason said.

Munger’s Spirit of Democracy California PAC also supported Nancy Hinton, Bob Cain, Emma Alonzo, Nadine Salim and James Gilbert for Central Committee in District 1. Except for Alonzo, those candidates were leading in the incomplete count.

Walker, a Modesto school trustee, said the Sacramento group that paid for the fliers did not talk with him about the endorsement and he was “not particularly happy” that an incumbent was excluded from the slate.

“I don’t know where the money came from or who created the list,” Walker said.

DeMartini said he was not aware Munger was plowing funds into local contests. The chairman said most challengers trying to unseat incumbents hold extreme views and some of them attack Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, as being too liberal.

According to disclosures filed with the state, Munger’s Spirit of Democracy supported a multitude of candidates for Republican Central Committee in counties throughout California. According its website, the PAC is committed to building an effective and efficient government “that solves problems and treats tax money with respect.”

Munger, the chief contributor, chooses the state and congressional candidates to support and approves the expenditures done on their behalf for television, radio spots and mailers. Munger was a big supporter for the GOP hopeful for the open U.S. Senate seat in California. The PAC did not return calls seeking an explanation for its support for Central Committee candidates.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321