Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ballot error calls race into question

City votes cast in county election for MAC seats

By Daryl Kelley

As the counting of absentee ballots from the Nov. 4 election inched forward with no surprises this week, questions were raised about the veracity of the results in one obscure Ojai Valley race.
With several hundred Ojai ballots apparently left to count, Betsy Clapp and Sue Horgan solidified their positions for two seats on the City Council, a school parcel tax appeared to have lost and, in the state’s most expensive legislative race, Republican Tony Strickland widened his lead over Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson to 1,560 votes in a back-and-forth tally for the state Senate.
About 41,000 absentee and provisional ballots were still uncounted in Ventura County on Thursday. The count should be complete in a week or so, election officials said. The Strickland-Jackson race overlaps three counties, so results will trickle in from each as well.
In a new election-related development, challenger Gerald Kaplan’s decisive victory over incumbent Alan Saltzman for the Ojai area seat on Ojai Valley Municipal Advisory Committee was called into question.
MAC board member Russ Baggerly said he had asked county Registrar of Voters Philip Schmit to review the outcome of the race because residents of the city of Ojai were improperly allowed to cast ballots in the race. Only voters living in unincorporated areas should have been allowed to vote, Baggerly said.
“I talked with (Schmit) today and asked why this was allowed to happen,” said Baggerly late Wednesday. “He said he didn’t know, but he’d look into it.”
Schmit could not be reached for comment Thursday morning.
Founded in 1974 to give voice to valley residents who live outside the city of Ojai, the seven-member MAC meets once a month to advise the county Planning Department and the county Board of Supervisors on planning, development and other community matters. Its recommendations are not binding, its members receive no pay or benefits, and its races are almost never contested during elections.
So, there is some question about whether a costly new election would serve the public interest.
“It’s not a small thing if they have to hold a new election, because that’s costly,” Baggerly said. “But there’s no doubt that those people who voted within the incorporated area (in the city of Ojai) skewed the election. And Phil said there’s no way to pull those votes out from the final count.”
But Steve Offerman, an aide to county Supervisor Steve Bennett and executive director of the valley MAC, said he thought the results could be properly tabulated by subtracting ballots cast by voters in precincts within the city of Ojai from the final tally.
“I believe it can be simply remedied,” Offerman said. “It seems like a simple solution. That’s what I would be pushing (Schmit) to do.”
Kaplan, a semi-retired business consultant, said Thursday that he is bemused by the tainted vote but thinks it can be remedied without a new election.
“This is Ojai. Somehow this is how we do things,” he laughed. “But I’m kind of smiling about it. And I’m sure it will work its way out.”
Kaplan said he doubted that his nearly 1,000 vote lead would evaporate if the city of Ojai vote is backed out of the total.
“But if it comes down to it, maybe we could end up flipping a coin,” he said.
Kaplan said he’d called the county Elections Division and Offerman after sample ballots came out several weeks ago to ask about why Ojai residents had his MAC seat on their ballots. But nothing came of his call.
Saltzman, a retired attorney, was traveling and also could not be reached.
As of Thursday, Kaplan had received 4,010, or 55.62 percent of the vote, while Saltzman had gotten 3,072 votes, or 42.61 percent.
In other Ojai-related races, small business owner Clapp maintained her lead in the five-person City Council race. She’d received 1,500 votes by Thursday, with the next update of results set for today. That’s a 229-vote lead over incumbent Sue Horgan, who slightly increased her lead over Suza Francina for second place and the second open seat on the council.
Francina trailed Horgan by 142 votes.
Meanwhile, the Ojai Unified School District parcel tax initiative remained stalled at 65.44 percent approval, while a two-thirds super majority is required for passage.
In another tight local race, Ojai Valley Sanitary District director William Stone was leading challenger George Galgas by just 13 votes, 575 to 562.
The $10-million Jackson-Strickland race remains the election’s most tantalizing, even as late absentee and provisional ballots are being counted.
In several updated tallies, the two former Assembly members, who are ideological bookends, have swapped places. As results have rolled in from three different counties, Jackson, a Santa Barbara resident, has held a 10-percentage-point lead in Santa Barbara County, but Strickland, a Moorpark resident, has led by seven points in the larger Ventura County part of the district. The tiny segment in Los Angeles County has also sharply favored Strickland.
But now Strickland has widened a precarious lead to more than 1,500 votes. Observers think Jackson could close that margin in the provisional count because provisional ballots are often cast by newly registered voters, such as college students. And Democrats, led by President-elect Barack Obama, fared very well with young voters nationwide.

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