California law says voters have up to 10 minutes to mark their ballots -- but it also says they do not.
A conflicting provision of the state elections code sets the limit at five minutes, creating a discrepancy that has sparked legislation, headed to the Assembly floor, to resolve the matter.
The setting of a time limit decades ago was designed to help elections officials keep voters moving on election day, lowering prospects that long lines form and discourage Californians from casting ballots.
The issue potentially could be significant in a presidential election year, such as 2012, in which turnout is expected to be high and perhaps a dozen initiatives will be decided, along with state, federal and local races.
Assembly Bill 1724, by Cupertino Democratic Assemblyman Paul Fong, would repeal the five-minute limit, thus setting the bar at 10 minutes.
Under current law, neither the five- nor the 10-minute limit could be enforced unless necessary to avoid inconveniencing other voters.
AB 1724 takes a different tack, eliminating the mention of inconvenience and simply stating that voters can stay in the booth for longer than 10 minutes if they tell a precinct board member that they need more time.
Concerns were raised this week at a meeting of the Assembly's elections committee, which passed AB 1724 by a vote of 5-1, that such an open-ended provision could enable a group to disrupt an election by occupying voting booths indefinitely. Fong is considering amendments to address that issue, aides said.
Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation similar to AB 1724 in 2009, saying in his veto message that "there is no evidence that the discrepancy in current law has resulted in a significant problem for voters."
A court fight erupted over the issue of a time limit in 1988, however, when Marin, Sonoma and Santa Clara counties announced that they planned to enforce some measure of the 10-minute limit because of a lengthy ballot that included 27 state propositions. Civil rights activists sued, saying enforcement could hamper voting by people who read English slowly.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against enforcing the 10-minute limit, but the ruling was overturned by a federal appeals court, which said there was no evidence that the statute would be enforced rigidly or in a manner that unduly restricted any group.