Confusing and inconsistent direction from the California Secretary of State's Office has led the state to inefficiently spend millions of federal dollars earmarked to improve voting systems, according to a state audit released Thursday.
Widespread allegations of uneven vote-counting practices accompanied the 2000 presidential election, which the U.S. Supreme Court effectively decided. The Help America Vote Act, enacted two years later, allocated money for states to train poll workers and update their voting systems in some cases, counties continued to rely on punch-card systems.
California received more than $380 million, according to the auditor's report. But the state's methods for distributing that money were plagued by murky standards and a lack of clarity about whether counties could use new voting systems, State Auditor Elaine Howle's office found.
At least $22 million went to new voting machinery, like touch screens, that counties ended up mothballing.
"Some counties have collectively spent millions of federal HAVA funds on voting systems they cannot fully use," the report reads. "Under state law, counties cannot purchase new voting systems unless such systems have been approved by the secretary of state. However, different secretaries of state have reached different conclusions on the suitability of counties using certain voting systems."
The audit was requested by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who is running for secretary of state in 2014. He said in an interview after the audit was released that the Legislature needs to push the Brown administration and the secretary of state's office on establishing long-delayed voting regulations.
"Here we are, more than a decade after Bush v. Gore, in a sense back to where we were from a technology standpoint," Padilla said.
Spokeswoman Shannan Velayas argued that California has led the nation in tackling voting issues and pointed to a comprehensive review of voting regulations that current Secretary of State Debra Bowen called for when she took office in 2007.
"Of course we can always improve, and we have demonstrated adaptation along the way with the decadelong evolution of the Help America Vote Act," Velayas said.
She added that the office "does agree with the recommendation that we need to make it a priority to develop regulations describing voting system standards" and has begun drafting rules.
The auditor found that part of the explanation for an inefficient use of voting funds lies in the state lagging behind its commitment to put uniform standards in place.
Of the federal money allocated to California, more than $131 million remains parked in a special fund. Before it can be distributed, the secretary of state's office must confirm that California is complying with regulations in the Help America Vote Act.
But the state is already complying with those guidelines, the auditor's office notes, raising questions about why California hasn't already moved to free up funding so counties could use the money to update their voting systems.
Under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, California has committed to change from its current CalVoter system to a digital voter registration database called VoteCal. State officials told the auditor's office that they are waiting to launch VoteCal before certifying that California's voting standards align with federal requirements.
The auditor's report questions that rationale, noting that the state's first attempt to institute the VoteCal system foundered and cost California at least $4.6 million.
The report also faults California's implementation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 commonly called the "motor-voter law" that requires states to offer visitors to public agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles the chance to register to vote.
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @CapitolAlert.