In two fiercely contested Central Valley congressional races in November, where long-serving Republican incumbents Jeff Denham and David Valadao both ended up losing their seats by thin margins to their Democratic challengers, some voters were confused and misinformed at the polls.
Modesto attorney Lisa Battista, who coordinated a group of volunteer election observers, said polling places in Stanislaus County ran out of pink envelopes used to separate provisional ballots on election night.
And then confusion set in.
“The poll workers didn’t know what to do,” Battista said. “They turned a lot of people away and told them: 'I'm sorry you can't vote here. You have to go find another polling place.'”
In response, Battista said she made an emergency request to keep polls open past 8 pm, but a judge turned it down.
Stanislaus County Clerk Lee Lundrigan confirmed that the envelopes ran out and had to be replaced on Election Night, but she said the provisional ballots were separated using alternative methods, including placing them in other envelopes.
“All provisionally voted ballots that could be counted have been counted regardless of the method of segregation from the other ballots,” Lundrigan said.
It’s also unclear if voters who arrived at precincts other than the ones they were assigned to were told to go to the correct polling places, or if they were simply turned away and went home without casting a ballot.
“There's no way to track what individual voters did,” Battista said. “If they were told ‘You can't vote here,’ they left and we'll never know if they went and found another place to vote or if they just went home and forgot about it.”
She added: “I was getting so many phone calls about problems with provisional ballots and broken machines and not enough places to vote. My confidence in the sort of validity of the vote after Election Day was not very high, given all of the problems we saw.”
After the election, Lee said attorneys representing both candidates, contacted her about the ballots. According to Lee, the attorney for Valadao’s campaign said those ballots should not be counted. The Secretary of State's office confirmed that the ballots had indeed been cast invalidly.
A judge later decided that the registrar’s error should not prevent the 126 ballots from being counted.
“That's what's happening in these counties where we see these really tight contests where it comes down to a very small number of ballots that is going to decide the outcome,” Alexander said. “Every vote really does count. And that's why you've got campaigns looking much more closely at what's happening administratively after the polls close and what's happening with ballots that may be in dispute.”
And, says Raul Macias with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, the onus certainly shouldn't be on the voters.
“I don’t know how they can be expected to be experts in election law," he said. "Even the election official was confused about what was allowed here.” (full story)