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Error in ballot notices affects hundreds of Sonoma County voters

An image of a ballot notice mailed to a Sonoma County voter showing the April 15 return deadline, with a note from the voter indicating the notice wasn't received until April 21. (Courtesy photo)

PAUL PAYNE,

Sonoma County elections officials were scrambling Friday after discovering that hundreds of notices to registered voters not affiliated with a state-recognized political party were postmarked after a deadline to request ballots for the presidential primary.

Notices received this week by about 800 voters set an April 15 cutoff to choose a mail-in ballot from one of three recognized parties allowing crossovers — the American Independent, Democratic and Libertarian parties.

However, because of a technical error, the notices hit mailboxes after the deadline, causing many people to fear they would not be able to vote June 7.

Frantic calls poured in to county election officials, who assured voters it was all a mistake and they would receive a ballot in time.

Among them were Santa Rosa residents Lynn and Leonard Riepenhoff, who received the late notices in the mail Thursday.

“I thought, ‘Something’s not right here,’” said the retired accountant.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. I thought I couldn’t vote.”

County elections officials urged voters to disregard the deadline and mail the purple or green cards back as soon as possible.

Deena Thompson-Stalder, election manager for the registrar of voters, said the county will send out requested primary ballots until May 31.

She said the late mailings happened because of a switch to a statewide database that caused some voters to be overlooked.

As a result, there was a delay in sending notices to those registered in parties not recognized by the state, she said. Examples include Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which does not have enough registered members in California to be a qualified political party.

“We didn’t capture all the voters we wanted to,” Thompson-Stalder said. “As soon as we figured it out, we fixed it.”

But it was not before about 800 of the county’s 245,000 registered voters received postcards with the April 15 deadline. With the exception of the errant cutoff, the double-sided cards are the same as those sent to about 52,000 voters registered under no party preference.

If they are not returned, voters can cast ballots in all primary contests except the presidential race.

“Worse comes to worst, they can go to a polling place on the day of the election ... and say I need a ballot for this party,” Thompson-Stalder said.

Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation, said the snafu adds stress to an already complicated system and could prevent some people from voting.

Many likely will assume they have missed the deadline, she said.

“They might think, “It’s too late for me anyway,’” Alexander said. “Especially people who are first-time voters.”

Some caught up in the error might have been attempting to register as independent voters by checking the “Other” box. The correct option is “No Party Preference.”

Meanwhile, thousands of voters statewide have mistakenly registered with the American Independent Party, a choice that could prevent them from casting votes in the June 7 presidential primary.

“It adds to voter confusion and it’s unfortunate,” Alexander said.

“There is a lot of complexity in our voting process and it makes it even more difficult to sort it out when we’re provided instructions that are out of date.”

Qualified parties in California include the American Independent, Democratic, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom and Republican parties.