California Voting: 58 Counties, 58 Procedures
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
As we approach another election season, we look at the status of voting in San Diego County and across the state, including the modified open primary, mail-in ballots and the lack of standardized voting procedures.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Here at KPBS we've been running reports and features on just about everything having to do with the June primary. We've interviewed candidates, analyzed major issues and discussed the propositions. Now, it's time to take a look at how we will actually be casting our votes next month. There's very little uniformity in the way people vote in the 58 counties of California. We'll find out why, and hear what we're doing this year at the polls in San Diego. I’d like to welcome my guests. Deborah Seiler is San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Deborah, welcome.
DEBORAH SEILER (Registrar of Voters, San Diego County): Good morning. Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Kim Alexander is president of the California Voter Foundation. Kim, good morning, and thank you for joining us.
KIM ALEXANDER (President, California Voter Foundation): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Well, Deborah, I guess the first thing I want to do is thank you because I know how busy you are this time of year. Are we all set for another election season in San Diego County?
SEILER: We certainly are. We currently have over 1.4 million registered voters and approximately 46% of those voters have signed up as permanent vote-by-mail voters, so those people will be voting by mail but the remainder, of course, will be going to the polls. We have close to 1500 polling places for this June election.
CAVANAUGH: Now is it something that the Registrar of Voters wants to do to have more voters vote by mail? Is that something your office is trying to achieve?
SEILER: We have been encouraging people to be aware of their options. We’re not necessarily trying to push people to vote by mail if they don’t want to but we wanted to inform those voters who vote by mail because what we’re finding is that we have a higher turnout among the vote by mail voters. For example, in the last June primary election in 2008, we had about a 34% turnout countywide, but among our vote-by-mail voters, the turnout was close to 55%.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So are there actually advantages for the county to have more voters mail in their ballots?
SEILER: Well, the advantage to the county is that when the polls close, at eight o’clock, when we release those first results, everyone, of course, wants to know who’s won…
SEILER: …and it takes a while for all those ballots to come back in from 4,000 square miles throughout this huge county. But at eight o’clock, we have close to maybe as high as 30% of the entire vote cast that we can release in that eight o’clock report. So that really gives people a good indication as to how the vote is going right at eight o’clock.
CAVANAUGH: Does it cost less to have more mail-in ballots?
SEILER: Well, it doesn’t necessarily cost less. It would cost less if we went to all mail ballot elections.
SEILER: I know there’s a controversy about that. But for right now, we are processing voters to vote by mail as well as vote at the polls.
CAVANAUGH: I see. We’re about to talk about the differences between the counties across California in the way they handle their elections and I want to be clear, Deborah, how does San Diego County verify the signatures on mail-in ballot requests?
SEILER: We verify every single signature that comes in on a mail ballot – on a vote-by-mail ballot. We are – we scan the envelope and it has the voter’s signature on the envelope and then we have a scan of the voter’s voter registration signature, which is on their affidavit of registration, and we bring those signatures up side by side, and we manually verify…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
SEILER: …that that voter’s signature is – belongs to that voter.
CAVANAUGH: I’d like to bring Kim Alexander into the conversation. Again, she’s president of the California Voter Foundation. That way that San Diego County verifies the mail-in ballot signatures is not exactly the way they do it across the state, is it, Kim?
ALEXANDER: Well, there are a lot of counties that are doing exactly what Deborah Seiler described…
ALEXANDER: …and I think that’s a great use of technology, you know, to speed up the process and make it easier for the election worker to do that manual verification. There are a couple of counties that have started using automatic signature verification technology to verify the signatures on the absentee ballots that they receive and we are troubled about the use of that technology because it’s – the equipment’s not certified by the Secretary of State. There’s no standards and there’s no oversight.
CAVANAUGH: Isn’t it true that signatures can change over time? How would that – how would they be able to do that, you know, in an automated way?
ALEXANDER: We don’t know.
ALEXANDER: That’s one of the problems is that we don’t know how these – this equipment is being calibrated in the counties. Presumably, you know, they’re each going through their own process of figuring out how to calibrate it, what to do with false negatives, what to do with false positives. And the result is that, you know, voters who vote in those counties are not treated to the same level of transparency and accountability that a voter in San Diego County where, you know, if you’re in a close election, as Deborah Seiler and other registrars know, your – you can expect the campaigns to send representatives into your office during the post-election canvas period where you’re verifying all this stuff, and they’re going to stand over that election worker’s shoulder manually verifying those signatures on their computer screen and watch them do it. So that provides a level of transparency that we are losing with the use of this new technology.
CAVANAUGH: Kim, how different are the voting methods and regulations around the state?
ALEXANDER: They’re wildly different. I believe there are essentially 58 different voting systems in California. I mean, we basically have a handful of manufacturers that are providing either primarily optical scan voting equipment. A few counties are using all touch screen voting for all voters at polling places. But for the most part, the counties are using paper-based optical scan equipment and then an accessible device which is sometimes a touch screen device as San Diego is using for their accessibility purposes. So you do have a lot of similarities in terms of the manufacturers and the models but when you get to procedures on the ground, they are all created individually by each county and they vary from county to county in lots of small but significant ways that make it very difficult for the public to have any oversight of what’s going on on a statewide level.
CAVANAUGH: I think that most people might be a little bit surprised to learn that there’s this lack of standardization in voting across California. Why is that the case, Kim?
ALEXANDER: I think one reason is, you know, we – Other states have a voting process that’s much more centralized at the state level and the state election authority, who’s often an elected Secretary of State, has a lot of oversight of the whole process and in many states they even produce the ballots at the state level. In California, we have a very decentralized system. It’s all happening pretty much at the county level. The Secretary of State plays some very important roles. The Secretary of State verifies voting equipment, publishes the ballot pamphlet, you know, and compiles all the election results that we all rely on to find out whether propositions win or lose or if – who wins each statewide contest. But most of the action in California is happening at the local level and the counties are different in California. We have a really varied state. You have very large counties like San Diego and then you have very small ones that only have, you know, a thousand or a few thousand registered voters, and you’ve got urban counties and you’ve got rural counties. So you’ve got counties that have, you know, L.A. County has six or seven language requirements to service all their voters in order to meet the Voting Rights Act requirements. Other counties have one language. So California is very unique. You know, we’re unique in a lot of ways and voting is no exception.
CAVANAUGH: Deborah Seiler, San Diego County Registrar of Voters, I want to ask you, do you see a problem in a lack of consistency and no basically statewide standards when it comes to voting procedures?
SEILER: Well, I think that there are some standards and there is a consistency. As Kim noted, there is a consistency in the voting systems in as much as most of the counties are using a paper-based optical scan system. There are very few exceptions to that, and we certainly do have a very, I think, well developed body of statutes that govern how the elections are run. But as Kim points out, we have counties ranging from Alpine with 800 registered voters to Los Angeles with four and a half million registered voters and different language requirements. So I think that that – that contributes, I think, primarily to the difference in how candidates conduct their elections. I do believe that there is some benefit, though, which is that given the flexibility that counties have to experiment with certain new services that they might provide to voters, that we can all learn from those experiences. For example, I’m particularly watching something that’s going on in Sacramento County. There, they’re experimenting with a new ballot on demand printer that they’re using to issue ballots to voters who walk into the front office. And so I’m very interested in how that works for them. So I think that there’s a positive side of it as well, which is the flexibility and experimentation that enables us to improve on our procedures.
CAVANAUGH: Kim, I’d like you to respond to that possible positive aspect in this lack of consistency across the counties of California. And also, I read that you feel, however, this creates a situation where not all voters in California enjoy equal voting rights, and I was hoping that you’d explain what you meant by that as well.
ALEXANDER: Sure. I mean, we have to remember that we live in a very mobile society. I mean, people who live in one California county often will move to another and find themselves voting in another county and that’s where, you know, the confusion can set in because they’re familiar with the procedures or their rights or opportunities in one county and the next one won’t have it. A great example is the ability to look up your voter registration status. And this is something that more and more people want to be able to do on the internet. There are way to enable people to look up their voter registration records securely and protecting their privacy, and we think it’s a great technology that, if implement well, can greatly aid voters in getting their registration record updated if it needs to be and make sure that they’re not disenfranchised because they moved and they forgot to reregister or they changed their name or whatever the situation. But, unfortunately, there are only a handful of counties, some of the larger counties, but still just a handful of the 58 counties are offering this kind of service. San Diego’s one of them, so voters in San Diego County get to have the opportunity to look up their registration status online. Voters living in other counties don’t have that right. And I think it creates a situation where not all voters enjoy equal voting rights. And we also have a situation where, you know, we have this rampant, I think, confusion. As a voter educator, I can’t tell voters in California uniformly, you can go online and look up your registration status because I know that it really depends on what county they live in, and I can’t tell voters, for example, the 20% of the voters in the state who are registered as Independents, who are technically decline-to-state political party, how to cast a partisan ballot at the polls because those procedures vary from county to county and some counties are proactively asking decline-to-state voters at the polls, do you want a partisan ballot? Other counties think that that implies that they’re trying to push a partisan ballot onto that voter so they, instead, practice what I call the don’t ask, don’t tell policy…
ALEXANDER: …and the voter has to speak up and ask for that ballot. And so, whether as a decline-to-state voter, again, 20% of the registered voters, whether you are able to fully utilize your rights as that kind of a voter depends on how the county treats you.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask Deborah a question about the modified open primary and, as you said, the fact that Independent voters can request partisan ballots this primary. But first, Deborah, I just want to make sure that I understand how this works. So if you watch what’s going on in Sacramento County, this ballot on demand, and it works out pretty well in Sacramento, could you just, on your own authority issue – start something like that here in San Diego County?
SEILER: We could. We would certainly have to have a budget authorization to purchase the equipment.
SEILER: And we would also work with the Secretary of State because the Secretary of State certifies the ballot printing process. And if a county is issuing a ballot on demand ballot, they have to go through a state certification process which Sacramento County has now done. So it’s not that we would simply walk out and begin doing that on our own, we would work with the appropriate agencies to make sure that we do it appropriately.
CAVANAUGH: But in a way, you do have a limited ability to pick and choose how you want to construct voting procedures in San Diego County.
SEILER: Yes, we do. Obviously, we are limited by the state – California State Elections Code and also by regulations that
have been issued by the Secretary of State.
CAVANAUGH: Let me move on to the question about the modified open primary that we are going to have in less than three weeks, Deborah. Tell us what does that mean?
SEILER: Well, the modified open primary has been in place since 2002 and it basically enables any political party to permit voters who are registered as nonpartisan or better known as decline-to-state, to participate in their primary elections. And, oh, four or five months before an election, the parties will let the Secretary of State know whether or not they’ve decided to allow these nonpartisan voters to participate in that primary. And this year, for this June, both the Democratic and the Republican parties have opted to permit voters to participate in their primary election. Now here in San Diego County, we have pretty close to 24% of the electorate is registered as decline-to-state or nonpartisan, and these people have been informed through the publications that we send out to them that they have three options. They can vote a nonpartisan ballot, they can request a Democratic ballot or they can request a Republican ballot.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
SEILER: For those people who are registered to vote by mail, we’ve sent out a postcard to those people to ask them which ballot they would like for us to send to them. If they don’t respond, we’ll just send them a nonpartisan ballot. But about 28% have responded and of those—it’s kind of interesting statistics—so far, 42% have indicate they would like a Republican ballot and 36% have said they would like for us to send them a Democratic Party ballot.
CAVANAUGH: And when a Independent voter goes to the polls, are you – what are you telling poll workers to do?
SEILER: When the voter arrives at the polls, they’re – if they are a nonpartisan voter, they are verbally given the option of voting a nonpartisan ballot or one of the two major…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
SEILER: …political party ballots, and we also have a little chart. It’s a figure indicating there are three options, so it’s graphically represented as well as verbally represented to the voter.
CAVANAUGH: I want to take a moment to talk about Proposition 14, if I may, because that would change primary voting dramatically in this state. Kim, tell us what Prop 14 would do if, indeed, it’s improve – it’s approved.
ALEXANDER: This is, you know, voters have seen a couple of initiatives over the years or propositions. This one is actually not an initiative, but it was put on the ballot by the legislature. But this is one of many efforts in recent years to try to change California’s primary election process. It would give voters increased options in the primary by allowing all voters to choose any candidate regardless of the candidates’ or voters’ political party preference. So no matter how you’re registered to vote, you would get a ballot and it would have all the candidates on the ballot. The primary election becomes more like a general election where there’s no restriction on what kind of ballot you vote based on your party. And then the general election becomes more like a runoff election where the top two vote-getters in that – in any contest that’s on the ballot proceed to the general election for what becomes more like a runoff, even if they’re of the same party.
CAVANAUGH: Right. So, in other words, if, indeed, people went to the polls in the primary and Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner got the most votes, Jerry Brown wouldn’t even be on the ballot in November, is that correct?
ALEXANDER: That is how it would work, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Now we’re going to be talking more about Prop 14 in the next hour of These Days but I wonder, Deborah, looking at this proposition, do you foresee any technical problems for registrars around the state if, indeed, this primary measure were approved?
SEILER: The technical issues that the registrars would have to deal with would be, at least initially, longer ballots. So, for example, currently the primary election ballot is split up into basically 9 ballots, one for each party and then we have the crossover ballots. This would give us one ballot type in a primary election but instead of having one ballot card per voter, it would be two ballot cards per voter. So that – we would have to deal with that two-card ballot. But it would definitely be a change and in some cases it might be an initial challenge for us.
CAVANAUGH: Kim, does any other state have this kind of a primary?
ALEXANDER: Washington State has a primary like this and it has been challenged in the courts and it survived court challenges. So the proponents argue that this measure, unlike a previous open primary measure that voters considered, would do – fare better in a court challenge if one happens if this is passed. I do want to mention, too, though. I think that for Los Angeles County, if this measure passes, it could set up a pretty bad technical problem for their balloting system because LA’s using this unique ballot system called InkaVote and I’m not sure that – it’s a system in transition and LA is sort of in this difficult situation of there not really being anything on the market for them that meets their unique needs as the largest county voting jurisdiction in the country and one with six language requirements. So the elections are very challenging for LA County no matter what and reformatting the ballot in this way might prove to be the fatal blow to their voting system.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Kim, after studying voting procedures across California, I’m wondering, what would be the top one or two changes that you would like to see made?
ALEXANDER: Well, I think I would – Number one would be, I would love for every county to have the same abilities for voters on their website. I wish that every voter in the state could check their registration status and their polling place location and receive a sample ballot online the way that some voters can in some of the larger counties that have more technological capabilities like San Diego. It really does a huge disservice for voters who live in rural areas that don’t have access to that kind of – the kind of look-up tools to be able to vote as informed as voters in other counties. So that is one area where I think we could greatly benefit from some uniformity. And I would love to see the procedures put into the regulatory framework. I mean, we actually have very few election procedures in the election – in that area of the regulations, and compared to other statewide offices, there’s just not very many and it’s not used enough to create new streamlining in the voting process. Too often, people go to the legislative process to try to make changes and, you know, this is a very fine-tuned area of public policy. Sometimes it would be better to focus on making uniformity through regulations rather than through the legislative process. So I would love to see uniformity in the voting equipment procedures. We have – we could move from having 58 different voting systems with 58 different sets of procedures to instead just have maybe 3 or 4 that are standardized across the state, and it would make it so much easier for the public to make sure that the counties are following the rules.
CAVANAUGH: And just a quick follow-up to you, Kim, what would have to happen for that to happen. In other words, would it have to be approved by the legislature or could, perhaps, the Secretary of State just initiate new regulations?
ALEXANDER: The Secretary of State could initiate a regulatory process. She’s done it on a couple – in one other issue area since she’s been Secretary of State. It could be something that comes through the legislature that directs the Secretary of State to promulgate regulations. But, you know, ideally, we would see a collaborative process between the Secretary of State and the county registrars to work together to create standardization in election equipment procedures.
CAVANAUGH: And, Deborah, anything you’d like to see changed?
SEILER: Well, I would like to see increased emphasis on voter education. I would love to see a curriculum in every single high school that teaches voters, our young people, a little bit more maybe about the mechanics of voting, certainly to explain perhaps some of these complicated primary election rules so that our young voters have a basic understanding of what the nature of a primary election really is, maybe a little bit about the parties, how they go vote, how they go about casting a ballot, what the registration requirements are and so forth, I would dearly love to see that level of education to bring our citizens up to speed and be really well informed about the basics of their democratic process.
CAVANAUGH: Because you’re finding that people don’t know the basics.
SEILER: That is correct. Some people are very confused by the process and particularly when changes are made to maybe it’s – I don’t think it’s voting systems so much that confuse people really. I think that it’s changes in procedures, not really certain about what the elections process is all about.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now one final question to you, if I may, Deborah. Voting, I know, is already underway for mail-in ballots. When can people start voting at the County Registrar’s office?
SEILER: Oh, they have already started voting up here at the registrar’s office.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay, I’m behind the times.
SEILER: Yes, last Monday they started. We’re at 20 days out. Voting always starts in our office 29 days before the election.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
SEILER: So we have had several hundred people already come in to cast their ballots.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. Thank you, Deborah Seiler, for taking the time out to speak with us. I appreciate it.
SEILER: You are welcome.
CAVANAUGH: Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, thank you so much.
ALEXANDER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Stay with us. In the next hour of These Days, our election coverage continues with a look at the statewide propositions. You can find all of KPBS’s in-depth election coverage online at KPBS.org/election. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.