Angry voters in East Palo Alto left in frustration without casting their votes after a shortage of paper ballots created long lines that went out the door on Election Day, poll workers said.
The line snaked through the City Hall lobby for hours after the ballots ran out and voters had to use electronic machines to cast their votes.
The problem was exacerbated by voters who were reading the ballot for the first time on the machines, each person taking 20 to 30 minutes to vote, Ethan Frantz, a San Mateo County election official, said.
"An insanely long ballot" also added to the long voting times, he said.
The ballots ran out about 3 p.m. and workers scrambled to accommodate voters by getting in two additional voting machines, but those machines did not arrive until 6 p.m., he said.
"We're seeing a lot of irate voters," he added, noting that some voters felt the lack of ballots was meant to disenfranchise voters in the heavily Democratic and minority community.
But Frantz said the problem appeared to be countywide. Precincts in Portola Valley were just as affected as East Palo Alto, he said.
Frantz did not know the reason for the snafu and a call to the San Mateo County Registrar of Voters reached only voice mail.
But Frantz said voter turnout in many places was much higher than anticipated. In East Palo Alto, the City Hall precinct had as much as 40 percent more voters than he has seen in any of his six years serving as an election official.
The only thing to rival this year's election was the 2008 presidential primary, when residents voted for Barack Obama. Precincts experienced ballot problems then also, but not on the scale of Tuesday's vote, he said.
Residents standing in line were promised that polls would stay open until midnight or later if necessary and that anyone who was in line by 8 p.m. would be admitted. Workers pleaded with voters to stay, but some voters were forced to leave because of other obligations.
"Unjust is a good word" to describe some voters' feelings, a woman in her 40s said. "They should plan better. I've been voting here for over 20 years and have never experienced anything like this," the woman, who declined to give her name, said.
"I'm encouraged at the same time by the voter turnout, but I'm sad for the people who couldn't wait and went home because they had to take care of their kids. It's important for people to bring their kids to see the process but it's not good to have an interruption of family life," she said.
Jaime Calderon said he has voted for many years but was surprised by the long wait and lack of ballots.
"It's bad, very bad. Did they do it on purpose?"
Poll workers accepted sample ballots that arrive with voter information booklets. Frantz and other poll workers signed each page as witnesses. The registrar's office will transfer each sample-ballot vote onto a real paper ballot, then will stamp the ballot to certify it and run it through optical scanners that record votes, Frantz said.
Workers said San Mateo County Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, angered by the shortage, went in search of additional ballots.
At 8:35 p.m., registrar's office employee Greta McIntyre arrived with additional ballots. Precinct workers had seven ballot stations and six electronic voting machines going simultaneously, speeding up the voting so that by about 9 p.m. only 25 people remained in line.
An older African-American woman said she was prepared to wait as long as necessary to vote.
The long wait cast a different light on the impact of voting, she said. In most elections, people just fill in the blanks and leave -- a quick in and out process without much thought. But the long lines gave pause for thought.
"Our votes mean something," she said.
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