Heavy Voter Turnout for Recall

With long lines but only sporadic complaints about the long ballot, Californians went to the polls Tuesday in higher numbers than in any gubernatorial election in the last 21 years, election officials predicted.

Cash-strapped California (search) had only a few months to prepare for the recall vote, resulting in 10,000 fewer polling places than in past elections. Lines stretched outside many polling places, but many voters said they made it to the voting booth quickly, even if they had to wade through 135 names on the ballot.

"I've never been so busy, ever," said Patti Negri, a voting supervisor for 12 years who was stationed at a polling place in a Hollywood Hills hotel.

By late afternoon, 60 percent turnout appeared likely, Secretary of State spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said. That would be higher than every gubernatorial election in California since 1982, when turnout was 70 percent.

Voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis, favoring action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as his replacement, results showed. Also, two propositions were rejected: One would have banned state and local governments from tracking race data; the other would have steered a percent of the annual state budget into an infrastructure fund.

Turnout was 50.7 percent in last year's gubernatorial election and 71 percent in the 2000 presidential election. California's record turnout was 88.4 percent in the 1964 presidential election, while the highest for a governor's race was 79 percent in 1958.

"It's below a presidential race, but we're at the equivalent or higher than a gubernatorial race. It's still hitting smack in the middle of that range," said Kristin Heffron, the chief deputy registrar in Los Angeles County (search).

Absentee voting was unusually high. California's 58 counties were already processing the 2.2 million absentee ballots (search) turned in before Tuesday; statewide, voters had requested 3.2 million absentee ballots, and many of these will not be counted until after election day.

Civil rights groups set up a hot line to resolve voting problems and had received about 300 calls, said Vicky Beasley, deputy national field director of People for the American Way Foundation, a national civil liberties organization.

Many callers said they were confused about where to vote, and a handful complained that machines failed to record votes or that ballots did not line up with candidates' names.

"This election was held in a very short time and election officials may not have been adequately prepared to deal with the high voter turnout in some areas," said Greg Moore, who directs the NAACP's National Voter Fund. "We are concerned about the fairness of the recall election."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the election should be challenged in court because voters were disenfranchised when polling places were removed from many neighborhoods, especially in minority areas. Jackson said universities in particular were left out.

"That disenfranchises students en masse," Jackson said after an appearance with Davis. "It disenfranchises the 18-year-olds in much bigger numbers. Much bigger than the chad issue."

Los Angeles County elections officials acknowledged that 15 polling places opened late, but said the latest was only about an hour after polls opened.

One voter, Edwin Mejia, said he waited for an hour and half in a long line of exasperated voters, some of whom finally gave up.

"They were upset," said Mejia, whose boss allowed him to return later and cast his vote. "Some elderly people went to other places."

Angela Cohan, 37, found no line at midmorning at her polling place in Beverly Hills.

"I just walked right in and told a joke. I said, 'Didn't I do this last year? That was the quickest four years,'" Cohan said.

The biggest challenge appeared to be directing voters to polling places that had changed since the last election -- in some counties, 75 percent of the polling places were different.

Many voters clutched state pamphlets to guide them through the 135 names on the ballot. Some complained about outmoded punch-card systems still in use in 44 percent of the precincts.

"If I were 80 years old and couldn't see well, I don't know how I would do this. It's a Neanderthal system," said Daphne Calphon of Hollywood.