14 Dec 18
A decision made 11 years ago is still slowing down elections in Riverside County.
In 2007, California’s then secretary of state decertified Riverside County’s touch-screen, electronic voting machines, prompting local elections officials to scramble for a solution.
So, six months before the 2008 primary, Riverside County expanded its vote-by-mail system and used that system to count election-day ballots.
“Essentially, that’s the same system we’re using today. And it was never intended to be used in the method, in the way, we are using it,” county Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Dec. 11.
What hasn’t been done in the past 11 years is replacing the machines.
“We’ve been putting Band-aids on it and purchasing refurbished equipment,” Spencer said. “The equipment is legacy equipment. It’s no longer manufactured. We’ve worked with the vendor, with different consultants, to try to speed up the vote-counting system, but it’s basically at capacity where it’s at now.”
A fix, Spencer said, could cost at least $10 million.
Spencer’s remarks came almost a week after the county finished counting more than 650,000 ballots cast in the Nov. 6 election. At 32 days, it was the longest vote count since a 28-day count that certified election results from November 2006.
One factor slowing things down this year was the sheer number of votes to count. Statewide, turnout for the midterms shattered previous elections, and in Riverside County more people voted than live in Portland, Oregon. While many predicted turnout would be high (the pre-election projection for Riverside was about 56 percent), the actual number – about 63 percent – prompted Spencer’s office to hire 300 temporary staff to work seven days a week, including a night shift, to count all the votes.
But while high turnout was a key this year, other hurdles are routine.
For one thing, Riverside County is huge – about 1 million registered voters spread over an area the size of New Jersey. For another, the technology is outdated.
Add in new state regulations and the reliance on slower-to-tally paper ballots, which are much harder to hack and manipulate than electronic ballots, that must be counted at the registrar’s headquarters, and the vote counting process becomes painfully slow.
Before Spencer spoke at the Dec. 11 meeting, Supervisor Chuck Washington praised the “great work” done by county poll workers to get the votes tallied but then added, “we, as a county, can probably do a better job than we’ve done.”
The county, Washington said, needs to commit “(to) giving our Registrar of Voters the tools, the infrastructure, that she needs.”
In past years, the county has striven to be a leader in elections technology. Spencer said Riverside County spent $15 million on electronic voting, and the county was the first in California to use touch-screen voting technology.
From 2000 to April 2004, the county used touch-screen machines to conduct 29 elections. But then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley decertified touch-screen technology in 14 counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino, citing glitches in the March 2004 primary and his concern the technology was vulnerable to security breaches.
Then-Riverside County Registrar of Voters Kari Verjil stands next to electronic voting machines put in storage at the registrar’s office in Riverside in this 2012 file photo (File photo by Kurt Miller/The Press-Enterprise/SCNG).
Shelley lifted the ban for more than half of those counties on the condition they gave voters the option of casting a paper ballot, gave the system’s source code to an independent analyst for a security check, and created a paper trail for electronic votes.
Riverside County opted to meet those conditions.
“So we again spent another $15 million, traded in our old equipment, and upgraded to an electronic voting system with a voter-verified paper audit trail,” Spencer said Tuesday.
But in 2007, a new secretary of state, Debra Bowen, citing security concerns, again decertified touch-screen machines. That prompted the county to shift to a greater reliance on its vote-by-mail system, including the use of scanners intended for mail-in ballots as a tool to count in-person ballots cast on Election Day.
Those scanners were designed to count paper ballots 14 days before an election, Spencer said.
“Right now, we’re using it for that as well as (for) counting ballots on election night for polling places. It was never intended to be used for that.”
Also, in 2007, a panel led by former Riverside County supervisor Kay Ceniceros recommended that the county shift to paper ballots.
“Riverside County supervisors appointed the special-review panel in December after reports in November of technical problems with the machines, long delays at voting stations and lengthy waits for results,” The Press-Enterprise reported in April 2007.
Also slowing the count last month was the need to count ballots at the registrar’s office as opposed to in the field.
“In the early 2000s, when we had electronic voting, all the votes were cast at the polling places and it was then electronic,” Spencer said. “It’s on a cartridge that comes back to our office and is read and it takes 30 seconds to read those cartridges.
“Now, we’re on paper … We have to physically transport those ballots back to our office and then count them on election night to get those results out.”
Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries. (Courtesy photo).
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries lamented the current state of the county’s elections technology.
“For a state of California that prides itself on being the innovator and leader in technology, to really, basically, put us back into the horse-and-buggy days of transporting our ballots and not taking advantage of the technologies that are out there – and recognizing there have to be incredible safeguards for that – it’s really sad that we’re still in this old-school methodology, basically at the state’s insistence.”
Vote counting also is made slower by new state rules aimed at helping more people vote.
For example, mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the registrar by the Friday after Election Day must be counted. Also, voters who didn’t sign their mail-in ballots, or whose ballot signatures didn’t match what was on file, had to be notified and given 28 days to make sure their ballot was counted.
Another complication is the new state law that allows for Election Day voter registration.
“The conditional voter registration program ended up being very popular,” Spencer said. “It is something that we now have statistics for to prepare for future elections.”
“Accuracy and speed”
Spencer said she’s working with the county executive office, which oversees county government, to come up with short- and long-term solutions to improve the county’s election performance.
One decision facing the county is whether to opt into the Voter’s Choice Act, a 2016 state law that would let the county hold elections using a network of vote centers, as opposed to more plentiful and widespread precincts. That choice, Spencer said, will help determine the type of new technology the county picks and how many machines it buys.
Spencer told supervisors the county could get up to $6 million in matching funds from the state for the first $6 million it spends on new voting technology.
Supervisors expressed support for upgrading the county’s elections infrastructure.
“I think we need to be aggressive in that effort,” said Supervisor V. Manuel Perez. “Whatever we can do here, internally, let’s make it happen, because it needs to happen.”
Jeffries, who takes over as board chairman next year, agreed that the county needs to upgrade voting technology because there were “a lot of frustrated folks with how long this took.
“Accuracy is more important than speed,” Jeffries said. “But if we can accomplish accuracy and speed, a lot of folks would be happy.”
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