Ballot box blues

by Jim Hight

Humboldt County's election results were once again delayed and confused on election night, Nov. 5.

Snafus in ballot counting delayed final tallies until after 2:30 a.m. Due in part to these delays, radio and TV news programs reported misleading vote tallies for North Coast races before signing off for the night. And Channel 3 pulled a "Dewey-beats-Truman" boner by announcing on its morning-after newscast that incumbent Roy Heider beat Roger Rodoni in the 2nd District supervisor's race.

"When Roger went into Fortuna the day after, half the people were coming up and saying, 'Too bad you lost,' and half were saying, 'Hey, congratulations,'" said Johanna Rodoni, Rodoni's wife.

The Rodonis had followed the counting closely through the night, and by 12:30 a.m. the race looked to be going to Heider. But no one could give them a key piece of information: Which parts of the district had been tallied?

"I kept asking (election officials) what precincts have come in and they said 'There's no way we can give you that information,'" said Johanna Rodoni. As it turned out, the southern end of the district, where Redway-resident Heider had his strongest support, had been counted early because the results are tabulated on-site and transmitted by fax or modem.

Ballots from Fortuna -- where Rodoni had strong support, based in part on voters' displeasure with Heider for not making a stronger fight for local court services -- were driven to the election office, and they hadn't been tabulated by 1 a.m.

In the Heider camp, the illusion of victory was strong, aided by a Times-Standard reporter who telephoned Heider at home after 1 a.m. to tell him he had a comfortable lead and to ask for a statement.

At about 2:30 a.m., Johanna Rodoni called the Election Department and learned that the final tally put her husband ahead, 4,726 to 4,198. And, according to Heider's campaign manager, Dave Kirby, Heider received what must have been a very uncomfortable second phone call from the Times-Standard after 3 a.m.

Registrar of Voters Lindsey McWilliams says the confusion in the wee hours wasn't his department's fault. "For 20-plus years, the results have come in anywhere between 12:30 and 2 a.m."

He said the remote ballot counters and "Accu-vote" tabulators at election headquarters worked well, but the delays were caused by transmission problems from two remote counters and a slow post-vote audit at one Arcata precinct, which delayed all Arcata precincts.

He also said that he could have told campaign workers and the media which precincts had been counted, and that he would talk to his staff about how to provide this data.

Like counties all over the state, Humboldt is coping with a huge increase in absentee and provisional ballots. Absentee ballots are becoming more popular, with many turned in Election Day; and new "fail-safe voter" laws allow voters to receive provisional ballots even if their registration is in doubt.

All absentee and provisional ballots have to be hand checked. "It can take as long as 15 to 20 minutes to just process one," said Marsha Young, clerk-recorder of Mendocino County.

The delays pushed back the inauguration of incumbent Frank Jager and victorious challenger Jim Gupton to the Eureka City Council. And there's a remote chance the absentees may turn the tables again in the Rodoni-Heider race.

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