Monterey County The Herald
Pushing paper ballot envelope
By JIM JOHNSON
Herald Salinas Bureau
Article Last Updated: 11/04/2007 01:36:11 AM PDT
Brian Rothenburg, left, of SAVElections Monterey County, listens as assistant registrar Claudio Valenzuela, center, and technical specialist Frank Foley activate a voter card for a test machine in Salinas on Friday. Rothenburg said his group is calling for an all-paper ballot. (DAVID ROYAL/The Herald)
In the wake of the California secretary of state's controversial August decision to decertify virtually all touch-screen voting machines, local officials are looking at going one step further and getting rid of electronic voting altogether.
Following repeated requests from the local election watchdog group SAVElections Monterey County, Supervisors Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta have directed new county Registrar of Voters Linda Tulett to prepare a report on what it would cost to use only paper ballots — no touch-screen machines allowed — and hand-count them at the precinct level.
Salinas and Armenta represent the Board of Supervisors on the county's Voting Rights Committee.
SAVElections, which opposes electronic voting methods, argues that only the use of hand-counted paper ballots can guarantee a fraud-free electoral process.
Starting with Tuesday's local ballot, Monterey County will return to a largely paper-ballot election. The election will mark the debut of new voting standards, such as more extensive manual results audits and earlier certification deadlines.
The so-called "off-year" election Tuesday includes mostly races for school boards and special districts, and this year includes several ballot measures.
Technically, county elections had until February to follow Debra Bowen's order and replace all but one touch-screen voting machine at each polling place with paper ballots. But Tulett said Tuesday's election offers a fine opportunity to gear up for the national-level balloting in 2008.
"This is a good election to try all this out so we can be ready for the presidential election," Tulett said.
500 working voting booths|
Tuesday's election will kick off a busy 12-month period for county elections officials, who will engineer four elections during that time, including the state's first February presidential primary, a June statewide election and the November 2008 presidential election. That doesn't include Carmel's city election in April.
"It's one (election) right after the other," Tulett said, noting that when she worked for San Mateo County elections there were nine ballots in a 12-month period.
A total of 78 polling places representing 113 precincts will be open across the county Tuesday for voting. Voters can visit the county elections department to cast their ballot. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
According to elections officials, 79,495 absentee ballots have been sent out, and 20,420 have already been returned. Early returns suggest a low overall voter turnout, elections officials said.
A total of 39 races and measures in 20 districts will be contested, including seats on the Hartnell College and Monterey Peninsula College board of trustees, three tax increases in Pacific Grove, and a pair of openings on the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District's board.
In the school board races, 12 people are competing for four spots on the Hartnell College board of trustees; four candidates, including three incumbents, are seeking election for four-year terms on the MPC board; and two others are seeking a single two-year term on the MPC board.
In all, nearly 500 poll workers are expected to work the county's voting booths on Tuesday.
For the first time in about two years, most area voters will cast paper ballots this election instead of recording their choices on one of the county's 430 touch-screen machines provided by Sequoia Voting Systems. Bowen recertified the machines for use under a set of strict security modifications, but local officials decided to go with mostly paper ballots and use optical scan equipment to count the votes.
Elections officials are required to conduct a 100 percent manual audit of the touch-screen votes for this election, along with the usual 1 percent audit of the paper ballot count. In addition, certification of the election results must be complete within 20 days of the election, rather than the usual four weeks.
But SAVElections members said they want the county to go even further, demanding that all votes be cast on paper ballots and hand-counted by election staff at the precincts on election night. They don't even want touch-screen machines to be available for disabled voters, preferring an alternative system used by other states.
In a letter to county officials, SAVElections pointed to New Hampshire's voting method, which they said focuses on hand-counted paper ballots and does so at relatively minimal cost.
Only such a "hands-on" method of casting and tabulating votes, they wrote in the letter, can "assure the standards for democratic elections are upheld."
As a result, Tulett will prepare a report that she said she has already begun and that should be complete for presentation to the county's Voting Rights Committee by its Dec. 5 meeting.
Cost of counting a concern|
Salinas said his primary concern is what it would cost the county to go exclusively with hand-counted paper ballots and whether the county can meet federal and state voting requirements as well.
"For me, if it's going to take (another) $1 million, what are we going to take that from, health care?" Salinas said. "It's one thing to say go back to paper ballots and it's another to pay for it."
Salinas said he wants to know if the county can recoup some of the nearly $4 million in state and federal funds spent to purchase the touch-screen machines and related equipment.
Tulett said her initial impression is that going to hand-counted paper ballots would likely require the county to hire at least 3,000 staff members to count all the votes at the precincts, along with other additional costs. She said the process would cost considerably more than SAVElections has suggested, noting that there's no way to compare local elections with those in New Hampshire.
As far as recovering any money for the touch-screen machines and related equipment, Tulett said that's unlikely. The machines would probably have to be sold as "surplus equipment," she said.
In the end, Tulett said it's up to the supervisors to decide how to proceed with the county's voting methods.
"Anything can be done," she said, "but can it be done efficiently?"
Plans for exit poll|
SAVElections spokeswoman Valerie Lane said the group is "very excited and encouraged that the (elections) department is moving forward on producing a report."
Lane pointed out that the group has been asking for a public review of the county's voting system for some time, and has circulated a petition to that effect. She said the group plans to conduct a voter exit poll, led by University of California-Los Angeles Professor Judith Alter, during Tuesday's election.
Meanwhile, the group opposes the use of absentee ballots, which it regards as less secure than precinct voting. Tulett has suggested that a return to paper ballots would lead to an increase in absentee voting.
SAVElections member Larry Parrish said he believes county officials were roused by Bowen's ruling, which followed an extensive review of the state's voting machines by University of California computer experts that discovered serious security vulnerabilities.
"I think that signaled to the board that it was time to take this (issue) seriously," he said.
Parrish said he was cautiously optimistic that Tulett's report would be thorough and even-handed.
"We're hopeful of a fair report," Parrish said, "but who can say? If she leaves anything out we'll be there to see it. We hope she sees the light."
Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Nov. 6 Consolidated City/School/Special District Election Contests: 39 races and measures in 20 districts Polls: Open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Where: 78 polling places open, representing 113 precincts. Voters can cast ballots at the Monterey County Elections Department, 1370-B S. Main St., Salinas. Absentee ballots: 79,495 issued, 20,420 returned so far Information: Call 796-1499 or 866-887-9274, or see www.montereycountyelections.us/ Source: Monterey County Elections Department