Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Registrars, Secretary of State weigh in on June voting options

Several county registrars are hoping to avoid spending millions of dollars on new voting equipment for the June Primary by conducting the election entirely by mail. Sunday's Sacramento Bee featured an article by Kevin Yamamura examining this effort. Yesterday, Secretary of State Bruce McPherson held a news briefing to assure the public that he will not "cut corners" on the state's certification process despite pressure from some registrars to certify more equipment in time for the June primary.

This pre-election season is shaping up into a repeat of California's 2004 Primary election, when counties were also faced with a deadline, which at that time was replacement of prescored punch card voting systems. The situation was eerily similar -- registrars had their backs up against a wall, a deadline was looming, and the Secretary of State at that time, Kevin Shelley, was under enormous pressure to certify systems. Adding to the deadline pressure was the complexity of California's primary ballot, which allows for limited crossover voting. Several counties experienced widespread equipment problems in the 2004 primary that resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of California voters.

Secretary of State Bruce McPherson appears to be doing all he can to avoid a repeat and is insisting that all voting systems be fully tested and certified by federal and state authorities before being purchased by counties. Yesterday's Oakland Tribune featured an article by Ian Hoffman with additional comments by Secretary McPherson. Excerpts from that article, and the Bee story, are below.


With state and federal primaries just months away, California's chief elections officer has ordered the largest U.S. makers of voting machinery to be finished with national testing and ready for state testing by the end of January.

That allows just enough time for state testing and approval of those systems before March 10, when counties must know what voting machinery they will use and begin designing their ballots for the June primaries.

"We will have an election whether these requirements are met or not. California voters will vote on June 6 and on November 7," Secretary of State Bruce McPherson said Monday. But he said he will not loosen state rules for approving voting systems, considered among the nation's toughest.

"We cannot cut corners and lose the trust, the integrity of the vote. If we do that, we've lost everything," he told reporters.

McPherson's demands of voting-machine makers come amid criticism from some local elections officials that his office has been slow to approve new voting systems so they can meet their own deadlines and adequately prepare for the June elections.


But Alameda and as many as a dozen other Northern California counties are hedging their bets by asking the state Legislature for emergency approval to conduct an all-mail election in June, without any poll workers, polling places or precinct voting machines.

McPherson gave a lukewarm endorsement to the idea but echoed Republican lawmakers who are concerned about verifying the identities of mail-in voters.

"I am open to that," McPherson said. "I just don't know that we're ready for it in California yet."


(excerpts from the Sacramento Bee article)

The registrars point to a successful mail-ballot system in Oregon and the fact that most counties in Washington state now do the same.

California is heading in that direction, considering that nearly two in five voters statewide used absentee ballots for the 2005 special election. The state has seen a surge in mail ballots since a permanent absentee voter program took effect four years ago.

And Sacramento County had its watershed moment in March when more voters submitted mail ballots than went to the polls during the special congressional election won by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.

Still, lawmakers have been hesitant to eliminate polling places due to a variety of security and political concerns - and the Assembly last year killed a pilot project proposal.

"Right now, I don't know if it's politically feasible," said Elaine Ginnold, acting registrar of voters in Alameda County. "But if mail-ballot voters increase the way they've been increasing so far and turnout continues be very high, I think there's a good possibility we could ... allow any county to opt whether to vote by mail."

Alameda's immediate motivation is a new federal requirement to place at least one voting machine accessible to voters with disabilities in each polling place for the June election.

Moving to a vote-by-mail format would eliminate the need for polling places and significantly reduce the number of accessible machines the county would have to acquire to meet the federal requirements.

Right now, acquiring certified machines has proved to be difficult for many counties. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has approved only one brand of machine for the June primary.

He has insisted he will certify more machines by April once they pass a battery of state tests. McPherson spokeswoman Jennifer Kerns said the review generally takes 50 to 55 days and that the testing office is working to expedite the process.

But registrars have grown increasingly nervous as each week passes. They are concerned that they could face federal sanctions if they do not have accessible voting machines in June's election.

Under the federal 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, states and counties are required to modernize election equipment and make polling places accessible to voters with disabilities.

After Alameda raised the specter of a mail ballot solution, registrars last week were abuzz over the possibility.

In Yolo County, Registrar of Voters Freddie Oakley said she's considering the state-approved AutoMARK machine made by Omaha, Neb.-based Elections Systems & Software. But she said negotiations have become more difficult because the company knows it's the only certified option on the market. She wants a vote-by-mail option to give counties more flexibility in June.

"I think that takes California off the hook in terms of rushing to comply with HAVA when there's only one certified voting system out there," Oakley said. "So I would love to see this (vote-by-mail) happen for June."


State law allows counties to use all-mail balloting in sparsely populated precincts, but doing so in more urban areas would require new authorizing legislation.

Ardis Bazyn, a board member for the California Council of the Blind, said she would not object to a mail system as long as counties still made machines available to voters with disabilities.

In particular, she said counties should make sure that accessible machine locations are near public transportation.


Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-La CaƱada Flintridge, last year wrote Assembly Bill 867 to allow seven counties to conduct vote-by-mail elections through 2010. The majority-vote bill stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

She believes another vote-by-mail proposal would stand no chance of passage. Her plan required even fewer votes than the Alameda plan.

"Unfortunately, the political parties really don't like it because they want more control over who is voting," Liu said.

Assemblyman Michael Villines, R-Clovis, voted against the bill twice in committee. He's concerned that the state would be unable to verify who casts a ballot and that voter rolls are outdated.

"I think it could undermine voter confidence and create a situation where fraud can happen," he said.

Liu added that some Democrats also are concerned that absentee votes tend to favor Republicans - conventional wisdom in years past - but she believes that is no longer the case.

Some also believe political consultants are opposed to mail voting because it makes strategy more difficult. Garry South, political adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis, said the sharp rise in absentee voting already has shifted the dynamics of campaigning.

"It's the future of voting, no doubt about it," South said. "The thinking used to be that the electorate is somnolent for most of a campaign, so if you can go on air the last two weeks, that's all you need to win. That doesn't work as much anymore."


Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation sees a hybrid system in the future that includes mail balloting in addition to high-tech centers in which voters could cast their ballots in different ways.

"I do think that the polling place experience is a vital and vibrant part of democratic life in our state and it needs to be retained in some manner," she said. "I don't think it has to be an either/or situation. You could mail everyone their ballots and have them turn them in at a voting center."

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