With concerns over the security and inclusiveness of the 2018 elections, California is turning to Sacramento County voters to test a new way to do elections.
California’s new approach should be for the better, boosting voter turnout and leading to faster vote counts – if elections officials do their job.
Sacramento is one of five counties – and the one with the most voters by far – that will be testing a new voting system, starting with the June 5 primary. It’s supposed to be easier and more efficient by riding the wave of more and more people voting by mail and by replacing small polling places with bigger vote centers.
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Starting the week of May 8, all voters in Sacramento County will get a ballot in the mail, not just those who request them as in the past. The process is the same for those who want to vote by mail.
But the experience will be different for those who prefer to vote in person. Instead of traditional polling places – there were more than 500 scattered across Sacramento County in November 2016 – there will be 78 vote centers where you can vote, drop off mail ballots and register to vote. Sixteen will open May 26; the others will open on June 2.
And in-person voters can use 315 new touch-screen machines the county is buying, part of a $2.3 million upgrade of its aging voting equipment. The devices don’t actually store votes, but print out the official ballot with voters’ choices to put in the ballot box.
The county registrar’s office announced last week that it has chosen Dominion Voting Systems as the vendor and that its system has been certified by the state on all security and privacy standards. In addition, the county keeps all voting data on a secure network that isn’t linked to the internet, says Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar of voters.
Good thing because on Tuesday, top U.S. intelligence officials warned that there’s already activity by Russia to meddle in this year’s elections. They said they will inform state and local election officials who are on the front lines. That’s absolutely necessary since President Donald Trump won’t even admit Russian interference in 2016, much less lift a finger to stop it from happening again.
Also, if all goes as planned under the new setup, the counting of votes will go much faster.
Because voters can go to any vote center, there will be far fewer provisional ballots – those cast at the wrong polling place that have to be individually verified, slowing down the count.
Waiting and waiting for election results is extremely frustrating, and not just for candidates in close races who sometimes don’t know their fate for weeks. California’s drawn-out vote count made national headlines after the June 2016 primary, when it took the state a month to finish the tally. And in these times of voter fraud conspiracy theories, it’s even more important that elections are fast and transparent.
As the largest test county, Sacramento County will pose the stiffest test. With 774,959 registered voters as of Feb. 10, Sacramento County has far more voters than the other four counties – Madera, Napa, Nevada and San Mateo – combined.
There’s some lingering worry, however, because Sacramento’s elections office has had more than its share of mishaps. While the election ran more smoothly in 2016, the county elections office made some glaring blunders in 2014, including sending out faulty sample ballots. In 2012, more than 400 uncounted ballots were found in a warehouse months after the election. That sorry track record led to an outside review and recommendations for additional training and more cooperation with clerks who help oversee elections in their cities.
And there’s another complication: Jill LaVine, the registrar of voters since 2003 who has been the center of criticism, is retiring as of March 31. The county is conducting a nationwide search for a replacement, and the application deadline is Friday, but time is running short before the June primary.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s top election official, was a driving force behind the 2016 Voters Choice Act that set up the new system, so he has a lot on the line, too. He’s aware of the past problems, but his office has reviewed Sacramento County’s election plan and meets regularly with election officials. “We’re working hand in hand,” he said Tuesday.
Padilla said he’s optimistic about the new system. If all goes well, every other county except Los Angeles can adopt the new system for the 2020 presidential election.
Well-run elections are essential to our democracy. Will the new system make that more likely? Sacramento voters will help decide.