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Why does a County with 4,261 square miles have only 1 early voting place? Two San Diego Assemblymembers call for changes after ECM inquiry

By Miriam Raftery

Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña vowed to take action in Sacramento to require that San Diego have more early voting locations to avoid long lines in the future.

November 2, 2008 (San Diego) — San Diego County stretches 65 miles from north to south, and 86 miles from east to west, covering 4,261 square miles. We are the sixth largest County in America, with a population over 3.1 million people. So why do we only have one early voting location, at the Registrar of Voters office, which is a two-hour drive from some portions of the County? And why must people wait four or more hours to vote once they arrive?

I asked Assemblymember Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego) these questions just before a press conference on Sunday. She was surprised to hear of the long lines and pledged to look into the matter when the Legislative session resumes early next year. “With a City of a few million people, it doesn’t make sense to have to drive hours to vote,” she said on camera moments later. “We need to make sure that Californians have the same access to vote early that voters in other states have.”

On Saturday, lines for early voting were four hours long. Voters waited first in a hallway, then flowed out into a parking lot to wait in the blazing mid-day sun. Yet a spokesperson for the Registrar, who refused to give her name, said the Registrar’s office had no plans to add more people or more machines.

Assemblywoman Mary Salas (D-Chula Vista) echoed Saldañas’ sentiments. “We must insist that people have access to voting,” she said at Sunday’s press conference after receiving word that her own daughter had been standing in line four hours and still had not been able to cast her early vote at the Registrar’s office.

In past elections there was virtually NO line for early voting. I voted early the last couple of presidential elections, with no more than a 15 minute wait. Everyone knew to expect huge early voting turnout this time around, based on predictions of huge turnout. So why wasn't San Diego better prepared?

On my Saturday visit, I was told that Registrar Debra Seiler was too busy to meet with me. I did encounter Assistant Registrar Michael Vu, who declined to answer questions and referred me to Seiler. My message left for Seiler was not returned.

San Diego has drawn sharp criticism from election integrity experts for hiring Seiler, a former Diebold election equipment salesperson, and Vu, who oversaw the 2004 presidential election in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. In that election, voters waited eight to ten hours in lines--and two of Vu’s employees were actually convicted of felony election rigging in the presidential recount. Seiler and Vu’s pasts were brought to the attention of San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors in a public meeting, but Supervisors refused to question the appointments, deferring to the judgment of County Administrator Walt Ekard, who defended his choices.

In the Registrar’s defense, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has required that early voting be conducted by representatives of the Registrar and that voting equipment and ballots be secured. Budget constraints and availability of suitable locations could be problematic.

Saldaña suggested a possible solution: “Why not have early voting at our courthouses?”

In Texas, people can vote early at libraries. In Nevada, they can vote early at grocery stores, shopping plazas, community centers, libraries, colleges and universities.

Here in California, Riverside has allowed early voting locations including a mobile polling place. Orange County also has multiple early voting locations. Both are “red” counties. Yet in “blue” Los Angeles, the largest city in California, voters may only cast early ballots at the Registrar’s office.

Some voters have turned to voting by mail to save time and avoid lines. But there are potential problems and many feel insecure trusting their votes to the mail. Plus in San Diego County, the vote-by-mail envelope has the party affiliation labeled on the outside of the envelope. Anyone can segregate out one party’s ballots for destruction or tampering, election integrity activist Sandra Arsham of Ramona pointed out. Second, the envelope has the “spoiled” box on the outside of the envelope. “So anyone can simply mark a ballot spoiled,” Arsham noted. Many voters also refuse to sign the outside of the envelope, as required by law, for fear of having signatures misused by identity thieves. But ballots with unsigned envelopes are discarded and not counted.

Touch-screen voting machines have been eliminated in San Diego County for all but disabled voters, after testing by the Secretary of State revealed that such machines can be easily tampered with to change votes. San Diegans are back to casting votes on paper punch-card ballots which are read by optical-scanners. It should not be difficult to secure a single voting machine for disabled voters, along with boxes of ballots cast, at a handful of locations for early voters. More and more voters seek to vote early, freeing them up to walk precincts, volunteer at phone banks, or serve as polling place volunteers on Election Day. Others simply hope to avoid lines at polls or have last-minute conflicts that would make voting on Election day difficult.

Saldaña agreed to consider legislation requiring a minimum number of early voting locations based upon population and/or square miles. In a County as vast and populous as San Diego, it is entirely reasonable to expect at least one early voting location each in East County, North County, the South Bay, and the Central San Diego area.

What should not be accepted as reasonable is forcing voters to stand in line for hours on end to exercise their right to participate in our democracy, whether on Election Day or in early voting.

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