Sacramento County elections office needs a real review

Provisional ballots wait to be counted at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters’ Office last November.
Provisional ballots wait to be counted at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters’ Office last November. Sacramento Bee file

An “independent” review of Sacramento County’s troubled elections office is anything but – and if that doesn’t change, its findings could be virtually worthless.

Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine is the focus of scrutiny after a series of embarrassing lapses.

Yet as The Sacramento Bee’s Brad Branan revealed in a “Public Eye” report Sunday, the county awarded a $115,000 contract to an association that has assigned to lead the review team none other than Ernest Hawkins, who preceded LaVine as registrar and recommended her to replace him. LaVine herself has close ties to the nonprofit association based in Houston, serving on its professional education board for years and even receiving travel stipends from an affiliated group.

It’s such an obvious conflict that it’s astonishing that county officials chose the Election Center. What’s more, the center barely beat out another bidder – and only because the county’s assistant registrar of voters gave it a far higher score than anyone else on the selection panel.

With the two ranked so closely, why not go with the clearly more independent group? And why was someone in the office that is to be reviewed part of the selection process?

It makes no sense to undermine the review before it even starts. Some local knowledge might be helpful, but Hawkins is not an impartial judge of LaVine’s performance. Hawkins also helped review the county elections office in 2007, finding some problems but also concluding that it was “an example of what an elections department should look like.”

Even if that was true then, it certainly isn’t now.

Current and former city clerks, who rely on the county elections office, complained about several egregious mistakes before last November’s election, forcing the county to spend $68,000 to rectify them. The Democratic Party’s list of endorsements was missing from sample ballot information booklets mailed to voters. So was a statement from a Sacramento City Council candidate who lost badly. Two arguments in favor appeared before an argument against a Rancho Cordova sales tax measure that passed handily.

So while it’s good that county officials ordered this examination, it’s unfortunate that they won’t admit they have badly bungled it already. “The selection of The Election Center was made based on their proposal, experience and references,” Paul Lake, chief deputy county executive and LaVine’s immediate boss, said in a statement. “They are experts in the field and will give us an objective review.”

At the very least, county officials should insist that the company find someone else – with no connections to Sacramento County – to lead the review team. Better yet, the county should cancel this contract, which it can do anytime.

If county officials won’t fix this before it’s too late, county supervisors, who did not approve the contract, need to overrule them. With a big and busy election year coming up in 2016, it’s essential that any and all problems are fixed well beforehand. This review isn’t how to get there.