Sacramento’s sorry clunker of county elections

Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in the California Primary, in Sacramento,Calif., Tuesday, June 3, 2014. With no divisive ballot initiatives or high-profile races a low voter turnout is expected.
Mike Lee marks his ballot while voting in the California Primary, in Sacramento,Calif., Tuesday, June 3, 2014. With no divisive ballot initiatives or high-profile races a low voter turnout is expected. AP

The U.S. Supreme Court made it tougher for Texans to vote the other day when it gave its blessing to the state’s strict voter ID rules. Maybe a half a million people won’t be able to vote Tuesday because of it.

Here in Sacramento County, voters might not be systematically disenfranchised, but they do have to contend with a clunky elections system that does little to encourage voting.

There’s no one overarching failure of the county’s election division to point to, and no villain. Rather, county leaders must address before the next election an accumulation of small blunders and bad decisions.

Last week’s revelation that a vendor error had caused the wrong ballots to be mailed to 232 voters countywide was the latest stumble. In this case, it appears not to be the fault of the county, though unfortunately the mistake was discovered by voters, not county officials.

The registrar’s office jumped into immediate action to get the right ballots to voters. That was good. The incident might not have caught our attention at all – hey, things happen – if it weren’t for a growing list of complaints with the elections process in Sacramento County.

A few weeks before, more serious mistakes were made on the ballot that can’t be blamed on an outside vendor. First, the Democratic Party’s list of endorsed candidates was omitted, while those for the Republican and American Independent parties were included. The cost of fixing this was $68,000 to print up special cards with endorsements and mail them out to all registered voters.

Second, and even worse for voters in Sacramento’s City Council District 8, the candidate statement of Toni Colley-Perry, who is one of four people running for the open seat, was left out of the ballot booklet. In local races, this may be one of the few places where voters can learn about a candidate.

No matter what subsequent mailings were sent out, the damage has been done in both cases. When it comes time to actually vote, how many will simply open their ballot booklets and forget about the addenda that showed up in their mailboxes along with elections mailers, catalogs and supermarket fliers?

The errors highlight other hitches in county elections. For one, there’s the consistently slow ballot counting. With 60 percent of voters now mailing in their ballots, the public should get results earlier, not later. In 2012, it took nearly a month for voters in Rancho Cordova to get the final results of their City Council race.

Then there’s the lack of candidate finance information online. If voters want to see the county’s campaign finance records, they must take the time to go to county headquarters during business hours and look the documents up on a county computer. A public computer. There’s only one.

Technology does seem to be a particular challenge for the county elections division. It has a poorly designed, user-unfriendly Web page. No searchable databases of candidates or measures, not even links to the Web pages of the cities, school districts or special districts with current elections. It relies on PDF files for information. That can be problematic for some computers and is especially difficult to view on tablets or other mobile devices.

The crummy website could be actively turning off voters as the site requires a person to enter a birth date just to find their polling place. Birth dates, like Social Security and drivers licenses numbers, are personal information that people are reluctant to divulge online for fear of identify theft. Other counties allow voters to simply type in an address to get a polling location or sample ballot.

Having election information easily accessible online is absolutely essential, especially for younger voters.

“Information is absolutely critical to voters feeling confident in their vote and whether to turn out or not,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. “We know if voters feel a little iffy or not sure what a ballot initiative is about or what a candidate stands for then they are less likely to turn out.”

County CEO Bradley J. Hudson and Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine say technology fixes are in the works – a searchable database and a cleaner, easier-to-use website and better mobile apps – for next year.

They say having a new California secretary of state will help, too, as counties look at updating antiquated voting systems and embrace new innovation. That can’t come too soon. If 2014 sets a new low for Sacramento County’s elections, 2015 should set a new high.