An incredible voter turnout on Tuesday led to a shortage of envelopes for provisional ballots at polling places throughout Stanislaus County according to a local attorney and Democratic leader, resulting in a last-minute hearing to keep the polls open that was ultimately rejected by a judge.
According to Lisa Battista, who works as an attorney in Modesto and also organized a “watch program” for polling places in the county, at around 4 p.m. on Election Day she began to receive reports of stations that had run out of the pink envelopes that provisional ballots are placed in.
Battista had organized a group of about 50 individuals, many of whom were lawyers, to receive comprehensive training about the election law and keep an eye on the polling places. When many reported back that voters requesting provisional ballots were being told to go to a different polling place because of the lack of envelopes, she tried to contact Stanislaus County Clerk Recorder Lee Lundrigan to no avail.
Provisional ballots are used by voters whose registration can’t be verified, such as those who may be at the incorrect polling place, have recently changed addresses or recently registered to vote. They are placed in pink envelopes to differentiate them from regular ballots.
After reports from poll watchers began flooding in, Battista said she contacted the California Secretary of State’s office, getting lawyers involved and filing an emergency motion to keep polls open until 11 p.m., giving those who were turned away more time to vote. The request was turned down by Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Robert Westbrook after Battista failed to provide enough evidence that voters had been turned away.
“If they truly run out of things, like if they have an unexpected run in the polls and truly couldn’t have expected it, there are other things they can do,” Battista said. “Poll workers can be trained to let voters vote in a different way…they didn’t really know that.”
Battista said that polling places in cities throughout the county were likely affected, including Turlock, and that the results to the election could be contested.
“We have the top election attorneys in the state on this,” she said. “A lot of voters were disenfranchised today, a lot. There’s no way to know how many.”
According to Lundrigan, no voters were turned away, though Battista stated that she and her watch program workers received so many reports of such instances that they were unable to log them all. They were only able to provide three names of voters who had been turned away for Judge Westbrook, however.
“We had an amazing amount of people coming in wanting provisional, and so if you don’t have a pink envelop to put it in you can put it in another envelope and that’s what they did,” Lundrigan said. “The judge made the decision, we’re closed. It’s done.”
Lundrigan accused Battista and the poll watchers of “stirring up so much stuff” she couldn’t believe it, she said.
Lundrigan also said that each polling place had plenty of ballots on Tuesday, but that wasn’t the case for Turlock resident Hilary Smith, who attempted to cast her vote at Crossroads Church in town. She said she stood in line for 40 minutes at the polling place and described the scene as “pure chaos” after the ballots ran out.
“The volunteers behind the table were totally overwhelmed and they didn’t know what to do so they started taking our phone numbers and our names,” Smith said. “So we left, because there was nothing we could do.
“I would have loved to have voted. There are a lot of close races.”
Smith was contacted around 8:45 p.m. by a volunteer who informed her they now had a ballot for her and she could cast her vote. It’s unclear if that was legal, as the polls closed at 8 p.m.
For Battista, the poor preparation displayed at polling places throughout Stanislaus County falls back on the Clerk Recorder.
“I don’t know if she’s trying to suppress the vote, but she doesn’t care if people get to vote and that ends up having the same effect,” Battista said.
Journal editor Kristina Hacker contributed to this report.