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December 7, 2006

 In the News

The tabulators


If there was one lesson to take away from the final moments of ballot-counting last week, it was that an astounding number of people simply cannot fill out a ballot without botching the job badly. You find your candidate, you fill in the oval next to his or her name. Repeat. You'd think it would be simple enough, wouldn't you? Maybe you wouldn't.

A bunch of us watched the elections staff feed those last few thousand slips of paper through the machines Thursday afternoon. It was a top-brass affair only, apparently, down there in the elections office basement. Humboldt County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams worked one absentee ballot reader; his number two, Lou Leeper, worked the other. Carolyn Crnich, the county's clerk recorder and therefore the head of the whole show, sat at the front of the table with a blue pen and a roll of white tape.

Here was the system: McWilliams and Leeper fed the stacks of absentee ballots into the machines, which would suck them up one by one, scanning their surface and reporting the vote to a machine in the corner. But when the machines came across a ballot that it couldn't understand -- and they were actually quite forgiving -- the whole process would come to a halt. The operator would grab the faulty ballot and scrutinize it, looking for the human error that confused the machine. Then they'd generally pass the ballot up to Crnich for correction. This was how it went throughout the afternoon: About 10 ballots would go through lickety-split, then one would be kicked back. And then there'd be a long pause while someone tried to figure out what the voter had done wrong, and what the intent of the voter actually was. If the intent was clear, then they'd try to honor the intent insofar as the election laws would allow. If it wasn't, then the vote got dumped.

Most of the errors were of the easily correctable variety. Many people filled in the bubbles with an "x" or a check-mark instead of filling it in completely, as per instructions. In these cases, one of the election workers would pull out a blue felt pen and fill in the bubble for them. The blue ink was translucent; it allowed anyone who might want to come back and check to see the voter's original mark. But the machines could still read it.

Other times, people had scrawled way outside the confines of the bubble. In these cases, Crnich would take her white tape and mask the offending marks, hiding them from the machines. Then the ballot would go through fine. But other cases were more complex, and it all came down to a judgment call on the part of the election workers.

Once, when McWilliams' machine quit on him, he found that a voter had essentially cast two votes for the office of Eureka's mayor, one for Peter La Vallee and one for Virginia Bass. There was a slight difference between the two votes, though. The Bass bubble was filled in completely. With the La Vallee vote, the citizen's pen had just made a few loops around the interior of the bubble. It left a very thick line around the edges, but it hadn't quite filled in the center.

What to do? McWilliams said that to him, it looked like the voter had accidentally started to vote for La Vallee, realized the mistake and gone on to vote for Bass. Therefore, he thought, the vote should be counted for Bass. But Crnich overruled him -- she said that since the vote hadn't been corrected as per the instructions delivered with absentee ballots, that voter's choice for that office should be invalidated. It was, in elections parlance, an "overvote." And that's what happened.

Over the coming few weeks, that little moment may prove prophetic. Ron Kuhnel, a candidate for the Eureka City Council, ended the afternoon just 28 votes behind incumbent Jeff Leonard, and it looks like Kuhnel is going to be ordering a recount of ballots. It's a dead certainty that there were far more than 29 questionable, judgment-call type ballots of the sort described above cast in that race. People may soon be fighting over every single one of them.


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Both sitting Eureka City Councilmember Chris Kerrigan and Eureka City Clerk Kathleen Franco Simmons made the scene early down in the Elections Office basement. Councilmember-elect Larry Glass, who had clearly triumphed on election night a month ago, got there a bit later. Franco Simmons was there because she had to get this week's council meeting agenda to the printers, and she needed to know which new members to welcome, which old members to thank for their service.

Kerrigan was there for two reasons. For one, he operates a fledgling political consulting business that oversaw the re-election campaign of Supervisor Bonnie Neely, whose relatively healthy election night lead against challenger Nancy Flemming had widened by the time the night was over. Secondly, though, he was eager to see if Kuhnel might have pulled out a victory, against the odds. If he had, it would be the first time in his six years on the Eureka City Council that he would have been able to form part of a majority. For six years, he's been on the losing end of 3-2 votes -- or, maybe more often, 4-1 votes. With the failure of Nan Abrams' campaign against Mike Jones, and the apparent failure of Kuhnel's, it looked like he and Glass would end up forming a minority bloc for the last two years of his term-limited stint in office.

Or would he? One can muse. The big question in the air, that night and now, is what becomes of Virginia Bass' Second Ward seat now that she's been promoted to the mayorship. Essentially, she has two options -- call for a special election, which would cost the city some money, or appoint someone to take her spot on the council. Kerrigan would obviously prefer the former, as it would give him a chance to get that third crucial vote. Bass has said that she's looking into all the options, but it would be shocking if she didn't appoint someone to the seat.

But there's a catch to that, too -- kind of a double-catch, actually. It seems unlikely, but it gives the Kerrigan side a little bit of room to dream. The Eureka city charter states that all mayoral appointments must be approved by the City Council. But what if, as will likely be the case, the Council deadlocks 2-2 over a Bass appointment? The consensus wisdom is that, as with all Eureka City Council ties, the mayor herself would cast the deciding vote, and so usher her selection into office. But there's another theory floating around that this is a misreading of section 302 of the charter, which states that a vacancy appointment must be approved by "a majority of the Council Members." The language is specific enough, the theory goes, that it would exclude an appointee who didn't receive three votes.

It may be tried. It may already have been, by the time you read these words. And then there's the second option -- you can call it "the nuclear option," or "the Texas State Legislature option." If Glass and Kerrigan decide they really want to force a special election, or to bar a specific appointee, they can simply refuse to show up -- they can go hole up in a hotel in Hayfork. Without three members present the City Council would have no quorum, and no city business at all could be conducted until the matter was settled.

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For quite a few people on both sides of the aisle in Humboldt County, California's campaign finance laws are a very funny joke, something to be chuckled over or sneered at. You almost pity the people who believe that what candidates write on their disclosure forms is the whole story. In too many cases, it isn't even close.

Outside in the hallway after all the votes were counted and people were going home for the night, Nancy Flemming's campaign manager Rich Mostranski -- probably one of the nicest guys in Humboldt County -- was talking to a reporter about how thoroughly his candidate beat the expectations. The race ended in a virtual tie. It was assumed early on that Flemming would go down 60-40. Why, Mostranski said, even two weeks ago the polls had her down by 10 points.

Wait a minute, Rich -- polls? What polls?

"Oh, it was just a private poll. A poll by a private party."

Really, Rich? And this private party shared the results of this poll with you? That fact is duly noted on your campaign finance forms, we presume?

"Ha ha! No comment!"

Combine this little chestnut with the memory of the "non-partisan," "non-political" crews employed by Rob Arkley's company on election day, and draw your own conclusions.



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