Elections officials quell perfect storm
Power outages, a dearth of ballots and a flood of voters created “a perfect storm” for the El Dorado County Elections Office on election night, according to Recorder-Clerk & Registrar of Voters Bill Schultz.
“At around 5:30 p.m., there was a tremendous upsurge of voters to the polls,” said Schultz, “and we ran out of ballots.” The team at the Elections Office went into turbo drive, handling calls and printing ballots to be ferried to the polling stations.
Schultz said he knew there would be a good turnout of voters for this election and had ordered the usual amount of ballots and 5 percent more for good measure. But for some reason it just wasn’t enough.
Monika Billingsley, a volunteer election official in an El Dorado Hills polling station, said, “We ran out of ballots close to 5 o’clock. We had noticed the shortage and already notified a runner, but when we tried to call the Elections Offices, the lines were jammed and we couldn’t get through.”
A long line of voters waited patiently for the lone touch screen voting machine.
“Everything was going so well until then,” said Billingsley, “but we knew what to do and people were so understanding.”
Some blank ballots arrived to be processed manually.
“The Elections Department printed off more ballots and so quickly and they were delivered immediately,” said Billingsley. “People had to wait maybe 30-45 minutes, but it was handled fast and resolved before 7 p.m., and I was so proud of workers and how they handled the problem and of the people in line who were so patient.”
At 6:30 p.m., a call came from the polling stations in Georgetown, Auburn Lake Trails, Wentworth Springs and Cool — the power was out.
“The touch screen election machines have a back-up battery but it only lasts an hour,” said Schultz.
Frank Yost, communication manager for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, walked into the Elections Office where he and a few deputies traditionally provide a security detail and keep lines of communications open. Schultz and Yost immediately got on the ham radio, putting out a call for help. Georgetown Fire Chief Greg Schwab picked up the call and jumped to work, alerting the Georgetown Community Emergency Response Team, a volunteer organization that went into action, mobilizing portable generators and distributing them to the polling stations affected. The Garden Valley Fire Department also responded to the alert.
It was providential that last winter Yost spoke of the advantages of ham radio during CERT team training, which Schwab attended.
“I was intrigued so I went through the classes and got certified,” said Schwab. “I knew they were using the radio net for the elections, so when our power went off I went out to the truck and turned it on and I heard the call. When all else fails, amateur radio still works.”
Power wasn’t restored in Cool until 4:30 a.m. (it was unknown what caused the outage as of press time Wednesday), but the voting was able to continue. At 7:40 p.m., 20 minutes before the polls closed, the Georgetown polling station ran out of ballots and deputy Cathey at Elections in Placerville sped through the night delivering additional ballots.
“The polls close at 8 p.m.,” said Schultz, “but anyone in the polls before eight is going to get to vote. We’ll lock up behind them, but they will get to vote.”
The turnout this year appeared to be bigger than it had for many years, said Elections official Bob Casper. “I think over 55 percent of the voters turned out. We ran out of ballots, but it was great to see the turnout.”
El Dorado County has 107,925 registered voters. More than 69,000 mail-in ballots were sent out and a little over half had already been received and validated on Tuesday evening.
“People often get mail-in ballots and then hang on to them until the last day to bring them in,” said Joe Zitzelberger, systems coordinator for the Elections Department. “This was the craziest year I’ve ever seen in 20 years.”
It was calm, despite the electoral storm at the Elections Office during the last hour the polls were open. Workers like Mary Warden and Sue Myers busily opening mail-in ballots and checking them over before sending them to be tabulated, people printing new ballots and sending them where needed, people answering phones. As the last voter finished voting at the Elections Office at 8:13 p.m., the polls closed, not with a bang, but with the whisper of a fan cooling off perspiring elections officials.