Besides counting ballots cast on Tuesday, election officials may have to deal with a record number of absentee ballots. About 3.2 million absentee ballots were requested for the recall election, a higher number than in any previous election. Approximately 2 million of those ballots have been returned. Other absentee ballots will be dropped off at voting precincts Tuesday.
Some “provisional” ballots will also be cast Tuesday. Provisional ballots are cast by voters who don’t appear on a precinct’s voter list. If the voter’s registration status is later verified, the ballot is counted.
“It takes time to scrutinize all the ballots and all the provisionals and all the absentees. If this thing comes down to the wire, then it’s not going to be a quick photo finish. It’s going to be slow motion, and it has to be to get it right,” Stephen Weir, registrar of voters in Contra Costa County, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Some officials are also worried that voters might have trouble understanding lengthy ballots that list the 135 gubernatorial candidates and two ballot initiatives. Mistakenly marked ballots could slow the counting process and possibly lead to legal action.
State and county election officials have urged voters to study sample ballots and to bring them to the polls to use as a guide when marking their official ballots.
Voter turnout is expected to be relatively high, drawing close to the same number of voters as a presidential election. The California Field Poll reported that the expected 10 million voters, which include those who cast absentee ballots, “would represent a 30 percent increase over the 7.7 million voters who participated in the 2002 gubernatorial election and would be larger than any previous non-presidential contest in state history.”
Crowding at the polls is another concern of election officials. The number of polling places available to voters will be lower than normal because the truncated nature of the recall election campaign left officials with less time to prepare.
“Clearly, there’s no other activity in Los Angeles County when two million people decide to get up on one day and all do the same thing,” Los Angeles Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack told the Chronicle. “If they all rush to the polling locations first thing in the morning, that is not optimal for them or for us.”
Another factor causing worry for officials and some civil rights groups is the use of punch-card style voting systems in six California counties. Critics have claimed the systems are error-prone. The systems were due to be replaced by the next election, but the recall law required the election to be scheduled within 80 days of the recall petition certification. Oct. 7 is 77 days after the certification.
The American Civil Liberties Union fought an unsuccessful court battle to have the election postponed until the systems could be replaced. A federal appeals court agreed with state officials who argued that keeping the recall election on schedule was in the interest of California citizens. Some election officials have also argued that the systems are sufficiently reliable.
“We’ve used punch cards for 30 years without any problems,” McCormack told the San Jose Mercury News. “We’ve always felt the lawsuit presented a spurious argument.”
Political and civil rights groups have pledged to post monitors at polling precincts to watch for problems with the systems.
California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley published a voting guide that urges registered voters to get to the polls early and advises those who will use punch card systems to “please punch the ballot thoroughly, and check the back of your ballot for ‘hanging chad.'”