Mail-in ballots for the CalPERS election that ends on Monday ask voters to sign them right below their choice, potentially revealing how people voted for two seats on the 13-member board that manages a $334 billion pension fund.
That placement has two candidates arguing that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System robbed public workers and retirees of their right to cast secret ballots in the election.
“These new rules have the effect of implementing, for the first time, a non-secret ballot for the ongoing elections. Not surprisingly, many of CalPERS’ approximately 1.5 million members are reluctant to cast a vote without the protection of ballot secrecy,” candidate Michael Flaherman wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to CalPERS Chief Executive Marcie Frost.
Margaret Brown, a candidate for a separate CalPERS seat, also has raised questions about the election format to Frost. Brown traveled to Washington state on Sept. 15 to inspect the company that is processing CalPERS votes. She said she observed boxes of ballots in an unsecured room, and urged Frost to reconsider the election format.
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Their complaints stem from a new election system CalPERS adopted to encourage more public workers and retires to vote in its elections. For the first time, CalPERS members can vote online or by phone in addition to the traditional mail-in ballots. People can vote on the CalPERS website – with no signature required – through 11:59 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 2.
CalPERS developed the format with a contractor, Integrity Voting Systems. The company scans ballots each night at its office outside Seattle to create digital copies of them. The digital ballots will be counted on Tuesday at another site in La Jolla.
“We have confidence in the integrity of the voting procedures,” said CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco.
The mail-in ballots include bar codes that track when people vote. Voters are asked to sign the front of the ballot to verify that the ballots are legitimate and that they are who they say they are. CalPERS will not count unsigned ballots.
“All they’re capturing is that the person voted, not how they voted,” CalPERS chief of operations Kim Malm told the CalPERS board at a September 2016 meeting.
CalPERS staff members say the company has not begun actually counting votes, although it keeps a tally of the total number of votes cast.
The CalPERS Board of Administration adopted the format a year ago. Outgoing board member J.J. Jelincic was the lone “no” vote on the proposal, arguing that the new mail-in ballot style would force people to disclose how they voted.
“It just seems to me terribly un-American to say we’re going to have an election and you have to tell us how you voted,” he said. Flaherman is competing against state scientist David Miller for Jelincic’s seat.
CalPERS has not heard complaints from other candidates about the format. Brown is one of three candidates trying to unseat incumbent Michael Bilbrey. The two others are retired legislative staff member Bruce Jennings and retired Redondo Beach engineer Wisam Altowaiji.
Miller said he supported CalPERS’ attempt to boost turnout by adding electronic voting options.
“These election changes were designed to try to address the low turnout in past elections, try to make it easier for people to vote, but still have confidence” that their votes are legitimate, he said.
CalPERS staff members have acknowledged that the placement of the signature block is a break from past practice. Previously, voters would sign envelopes containing their ballots, but the ballot itself would not have identifying information.
CalPERS estimates that it saved $155,000 by combining the signature block on the ballot. The pension fund is spending $2.6 million on the election, Pacheco said.
Brown and Flaherman have sent letters to Frost describing ways that they say the new format violates state law. For instance, state law requires that voting must be secret, that voting machines cannot be connected to the internet and that ballots should not include information that identifies voters.
CalPERS responded to their questions with a letter that outlined CalPERS board votes to approve the new voting process. The letter said CalPERS has special authority over its elections and it is not “required to comply with California public elections law.”
Brown believes the signature block on the face of CalPERS ballots is suppressing turnout.
“It would have been simple for CalPERS to have kept the process it had previously used, which is the procedure utilized throughout California, and essentially everywhere in the democratic world, for mailing paper ballots,” she wrote in a letter to Frost.