John Myers
July 10, 2016

State officials will write the June 7 primary’s final chapter this week by certifying that more than 8.5 million ballots were cast, though it’s unlikely to assuage voters or local elections officials who complained that overlapping and confusing rules left them with a lingering political hangover.

“It’s disheartening because people’s expectations were so high,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “There were a lot of unhappy voters.”

The primary’s sour ending note seems largely due to the asymmetric rules governing the presidential and statewide elections. Unlike the primary for state races – where anyone could vote for any candidate – the presidential contests were governed by a patchwork of rules that differed by political party.

“The presidential primary is always the most difficult to conduct,” said Michael Vu, San Diego County’s registrar of voters.

Independent voters, known in California as having “no party preference,” were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But they were banned from voting in the Republican presidential primary.

The Democratic Party required unaffiliated voters to use a special “crossover” ballot so they couldn’t vote for the party’s governing committee — but voters had to proactively ask elections officials for the special ballot.

“The parties set the rules,” said Dean Logan, county clerk-registrar of voters in Los Angeles County. “The presidential primary is not designed with voters in mind.”

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Those rules were supposed to be enforced by local elections officials, but procedures varied county to county. Activists, many of which were fervent Sanders supporters, leveled accusations that some independent voters were being cheated out of voting for the insurgent Democrat.

Reports on election day found a number of polling place flash points, where workers either offered the wrong advice or didn’t use the latest roster of registered voters.

California does not have a uniform system for what kind of training, or how much, to give poll workers.

“There is no statewide standard, and we’re all left to interpret these things county by county,” said Joe Canciamilla, registrar of voters in Contra Costa County.

Canciamilla’s office made headlines when state officials balked at the county’s decision to give a provisional ballot to any “no party preference” voter who received a ballot by mail but then decided to cast a vote at a polling place.

Those voters are supposed to exchange their original ballot, but some left them at home. Either way, Contra Costa officials offered a provisional ballot, reserved for those whose eligibility can’t quickly be determined on election day.

“That gives us a clear opportunity to check that voter,” Canciamilla said of his county’s use of provisional ballots.

In other states, critics charged that provisional ballots went uncounted. And by the time the presidential race made it to California, Sanders supporters used social media to urge people to refuse a provisional ballot.

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