FROM:   Kim Alexander, CVF President
DATE:   March 6, 2002
RE:   California primary election marked by confusion and low turnout

Hi Folks,

The election returns have been counted and Republican Bill Simon will face Governor Gray Davis in November. Five of the six statewide propositions passed, including Prop. 41, which authorizes $200 million in bonds to finance new voting equipment. The only measure defeated was Prop. 45, an initiative that would have modified the state's strict term limits law to allow lawmakers to extend their terms.

Election returns can be accessed through our web site, We have also updated our voter guide to reflect the winners in all the statewide, legislative and congressional races.

An estimated 5.2 million California voters participated in yesterday's statewide primary. Many late absentee ballots are still being processed and counted, but it appears yesterday's turnout was around 33-34 percent of registered voters.

The turnout rate was similar to that of June 1994, when 35 percent of registered voters participated in the Primary election which, like yesterday's election, was a "closed" primary where partisan voters could not cross party lines to vote in other parties' primaries. (It's worth noting that turnout in California primaries increased in 1998 and again in 2000 following the passage and implementation of the 1996 "open primary" initiative, which has since been invalidated by the courts. See for a history of turnout in California primaries.)

Despite valiant efforts by election administrators and pollworkers, yesterday was still marked by confusion at the polls as voters struggled to find new polling places and understand how the new "slightly ajar" primary works. The new rules allow independent voters who decline to state a party preference to choose which partisan ballot they want to vote. However, it was up to the voters to know they had this right and to exercise this option. This was a surprise to many, myself included, and no doubt added to the confusion at the polling places.

Below is an article from today's San Francisco Chronicle that provides some real-world examples of the confusion and complexities involved in yesterday's election. More election news can be found at

-- Kim Alexander, President
California Voter Foundation, (916) 452-7706

Wednesday, March 6, 2002 (SF Chronicle)

Turnout low, frustration high/Many without party affiliation confused by fourth ballot change in 4 years

Susan Sward, Joe Garofoli, Chuck Finnie, Chronicle Staff Writers

On a day veteran vote-counters dubbed "an election from hell," some California voters were confused by a new law spelling out who gets to vote for what.

Voters registered as "declined to state" a party affiliation had the most problems yesterday. Some who weren't sure of their options grew frustrated if they consulted a poll worker who didn't have much more of a clue.

The chaos could have been more intense if there had been more voters. Officials predicted yesterday would be the second-worst turnout of primary voters in California history.

Throw in the fruits of statewide redistricting -- 80 of San Francisco's 648 polling sites were in new locations -- and voting officials shuffling through hundreds of different ballot variations, and it was a trying day for many. Even Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown -- himself a "decline to state" voter -- showed up at the wrong polling spot yesterday.

"(The ballot) is a difficult thing to understand, and it's the fourth change in the past four years for voters," said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for the California secretary of state's office. "But it hasn't been that extreme that it hampered voting all over the state."

Under a new state law, people registered as "declined to state" could request the ballot of a particular party if they wanted to vote for a partisan candidate, but they had to know to request such a ballot. Otherwise, their nonpartisan ballot included no partisan races. Nonpartisan voters make up roughly 15 percent of the electorate.

The new rules seemed complicated for many voters, but the rest of the election process appeared to be going smoothly, with only the normal amount of technical and human glitches popping up here and there. San Francisco's Department of Elections was bolstered by 100 new troubleshooters in the field, and director Tammy Haygood said, "The thing we were most proud of is that we addressed problems quickly."

Many of those were caused by the "declined to state" confusion.

"When the Legislature proposed this, election officials told them people wouldn't understand it, and there would be a lot of problems," said Brad Clark, Alameda County's registrar of voters. "But they thought it was a good idea.

"I don't think any of them has ever worked in a polling place," Clark said dryly. He is president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

"This 'declined to state' law is causing a lot of confusion everywhere," said Rosalyn Lever, registrar of voters in Orange County. "But under the law, the poll workers can't advise the voters."

Charles said the secretary of state's office advised county elections officials to tell voters of their options, without crossing the line to advocacy.

Still, problems developed. In San Francisco, where election-day snafus have become legendary, voters like Eric Fedeler found his Western Addition poll site had turned into a mail-only precinct. His sample ballot that arrived weeks ago told him to await further instructions. They never came.

When Fedeler called election officials yesterday for direction, he said, "They told me, 'If you feel it's urgent, you can come vote at City Hall.' " He did.

Green Party member Mike Allen was told the same thing yesterday afternoon after finding that his Hunters Point polling station didn't have any of his party's ballots. "But I work nights, so I can't go to City Hall. I feel like I got ripped off here."

For poll workers wrestling with the new rules and confused voters, the day wasn't much sunnier. In San Francisco, there were 353 ballot versions, for example, while in Los Angeles there were 398.

"We have piles and piles and piles of ballots to deal with," said Bill Travis, a San Francisco poll supervisor at a Fillmore Street site. "It's ridiculous. If a person is registered 'declined to state,' often they don't know which ballot they want or even that they have a choice.

"We've had some people start voting, figure out they have a ballot they don't want, and then they request a new one and start all over again. Sometimes a person will tell me he's nonpartisan. Then I give him a choice and he still wants the nonpartisan ballot and then he comes back to me and says, 'There are no choices for governor.' "

Candidates for governor in this primary race appeared only on partisan ballots.

Sometimes, the confusion got to be too much for poll workers.

In San Bernardino County, 110 of 2,700 poll workers quit between 11 p.m. Monday and 5:45 a.m. yesterday, and a higher number of poll workers than usual quit in Los Angeles County.
Copyright 2002 SF Chronicle

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This page was first published on March 6, 2002 | Last updated on March 6, 2002
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