With polls an hour away from closing, congressional candidate Tom Watson — the Republican challenging incumbent Lois Capps — notified county elections officials about potential voter fraud at Isla Vista polling places. County elections chief Billie Alvarez confirmed that she discussed the matter with Watson’s attorney, Josh Lynn — former acting district attorney — but expressed confidence that precinct workers in Isla Vista are following election protocols.
In a “Possible Election Fraud” alert distributed to local media, Watson’s campaign chief John Van Winkle expressed concern about “the unprecedented and unexplainable” number of provisional ballots being issued to Isla Vista voters. He also questioned why polling workers would not determine the identities of the voters requesting these ballots or even the reasons they were sought. In addition, he claimed that poll watchers dispatched by the Watson campaign to police against fraud saw voters take their provisional ballots out of the polling station with them. “That opens the door to voters voting twice,” Van Winkle said.
Alvarez stated she dispatched a field supervisor to the polling place in question — Isla Vista’s Jewish Community Center — and discussed the matter with the person in charge. “No one is leaving the polling center with provisional ballots,” Alvarez. She said students are given the ballots in one location of the center, allowed to fill them out elsewhere, after which, they were turned in. “I don’t know what they mean when they say this is ‘alarming.’” She said it’s typical for Isla Vista residents and UCSB students to seek provisional ballots because they change addresses frequently. Alvarez said provisional ballots are counted only after the identity of the individual is certified, that it’s determined they are legally registered to vote in Santa Barbara County, and that they have not voted anywhere else.
Van Winkle said the Watson campaign sent 40-50 poll watchers to Isla Vista, and they reported witnessing “hundreds” of provisional ballots be issued. He also claimed that some of the provisional ballots were not given the proper sticker indicating its provisional nature. Alvarez disputed this, stating that she’d been assured by workers in the field that the ballots had been given a pink label and placed in a special envelope.
Provisional ballots are the stuff of many a contested election in Isla Vista. Most recently, they were the focus of lengthy litigation between Steve Pappas, who ran unsuccessfully for 3rd District Supervisor against Doreen Farr. Ultimately, a superior court judge ruled Pappas’s claims of widespread voter fraud were utterly without basis, but Farr — not the county — wound up eating the major legal costs of defending the election results. In the 1990s, a dispute over provisional ballots sparked a recount, that eventually reversed the results of the election as certified by the county of Santa Barbara. In that case, Supervisor Bill Wallace — a noted environmentalists and slow-growther — was eventually declared the winner over rancher Willie Chamberlin, but not until Chamberlin served nearly two years of Wallace’s term.
Lois Capps’s spokesperson Ashley Schapitl countered that Watson’s poll watchers had intimidated voters by speaking directly to them rather than taking their concerns to election workers or volunteers. In one instance, Schapitl said a Watson poll watcher confronted a young man wearing a pro-Prop 19 t-shirt and told him he could not vote if he didn’t take off the shirt. While such a shirt would seem to violate election laws prohibiting electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place, Schapitl said Watson’s campaign workers should not have contacted the person directly. In addition, she charged that one Watson worker commented to a line of people waiting to vote that it could take them a long time before getting to vote. She claimed that Capps’s campaign supervisors had contacted county elections officials on this score, though not Watson’s campaign directly.
Because of changes in how votes are counted this year, final results might not be available until much later than usual. That’s because paper ballots have to be shipped to election central before being counted. In previous years, those ballots were placed into electronic counting machines stationed at polling places. This expedited the counting of ballots. Now, paper ballots — like those cast in Isla Vista — won’t be counted until all the votes have been cast and then sent into election central. If any of the elections are especially tight, it’s possible the results won’t be known until early in the morning of November 3. Or longer.
Billie Alvarez remains optimistic that Santa Barbara voters will turn out in high numbers. She’s holding to her earlier estimate of 70-75 percent. Elsewhere, state election officials predicted a 55 percent statewide turnout. Preliminary indications suggest that turnout has been vigorous, except in Isla Vista where only 20 percent of the ballots had been cast by 4 p.m. According to campaign consultant Jeremy Lindaman, normally that number would be twice that. The candidate most vulnerable in that situation, he suggested was Democrat Das Williams, now running for 35th Assembly District against Republican Mike Stoker. Williams, however, remained up-beat, noting that turnout in Isla Vista had been sufficiently high and that field workers ran out of ballots and had to get new ones. Williams conceded that many traditionally liberal Democratic votes might be coming in late. “If I’m within 1-3 points at the early returns, I should be in good shape,” he said.