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Deborah Seiler Reminisces About Her Time As San Diego's Registrar

December 18, 2012 1:56 p.m.


Deborah Seiler: San Diego County Registrar of Voters

Related Story: Deborah Seiler Reminisces About Her Time As San Diego's Voter Registrar


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: I'm Alison St. John. There is something about Deborah Seiler that has overcome initial suspicions about her appointment and created an atmosphere of trust. It's an important job. Upon the outcome of our elections depend on her, whether we trust the results. Now she has announced her retirement. We thought we'd invite her in to reminisce a little bit about her time at the registrar's office, how things have changed. Thank you so much for coming in.

SEILER: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

ST. JOHN: Is it 1-1/2 million who can legally vote, they don't all vote?

SEILER: That's correct. Our current registration stands at 1.5 million.

ST. JOHN: Have you wrapped up everything from the last election?

SEILER: Well, there's still a lot of work to be done, a lot of storing of materials. We're actually still doing the vote history. So we go through the rosters of voters, and there's a barcode next to the name, and we give voters credit for having voted for the election. We're still working on that. So there's a lot of cleanup that goes on. It's a pretty amazing process. I don't think most people really understand. They think, well, election day is over so the whole thing is over. And we know who the winners and losers are. But there's a lot of work behind the scenes.

ST. JOHN: It's always interesting to go to the registrar's office and see all these people beavering away. A lot of work goes on there. You faced some suspicion when you arrived because you worked for D-bold, the company that developed electronic voting machines, and there was various studies that concluded that a hacker could install malicious code on the machine in a matter of minutes that could affect the outcome of an election. And California opted not to use electronic voting except for the disabled, one machine per polling place. I believe that you thought that those fears were overblown. Where do you stand now on electronic voting?

SEILER: Well, it's kind of a dead issue, I think. We use one in every polling place. People like them. The elderly and disabled are particularly well-served by them because they're so flexible in terms of being able to see the type, the ease of voting, the accuracy of the vote count. I do continue to believe that the concerns were overblown and the studies were very biassed against the entire industry. The standards were so harsh, the environment is so uncertain for the voting industry that counties are sitting on legacy equipment all throughout the state. And they have nothing to replace it with.

ST. JOHN: Other states are using electronic voting, right?

SEILER: Yes. Some other states do, yes.

ST. JOHN: Do you still have lots of machines sitting in bubble wrap on shelves in the office?

SEILER: We do. We have a fleet of machines that are sitting there. And then we can always use them as you pointed out, we put one in every polling place. Then we use them for early voting. So if one happens to go out, we have plenty of replacements.

ST. JOHN: I see. But do you think they would still work if in fact the policy ever did change? There was a political shift? The winds changed? Could the same machines be put back into service?

SEILER: I suppose. But I think it's a moot point at this stage.

ST. JOHN: Okay. And what about your successor, Michael Vu is going to take over for you. Did he work for D-bold?

SEILER: No, he was in tia hogea county where they have the machines as well. You'd probably have to talk to him about his views on it. But I think really it's almost not even worth having a conversation about because the secretary of state --

ST. JOHN: Deborah bowan.

SEILER: Has said they cannot be used.

ST. JOHN: Right.

SEILER: Until something changes there, we're not even really speculating on it.

ST. JOHN: Never say never, that's why I asked. But one of the things about you is that you have always been very available. Anytime the media wanted to get in touch with you, it seemed like you were right there. And not all heads of county departments are like that. Why was that a priority for you?

SEILER: Well, because I do believe in the transparency of the system. I am very committed to elections. I've been in elections for 34 years. I started in the secretary of state's office everyone March Fong Eu. And I believe that communicating with the public is one of the most important things that we can do so public do understand the process. I've always been for the duration of my career very concerned that people don't understand the basics of voting as well as they need to. And so the media has been wonderful in helping me get the word out. This is the deadline to register to vote, this is when you have to get your election for a mail ballot in. These are the poling hour, this is where you find out where to go vote. All of those things in the media have helped me get the word out. So I'm very appreciative.

ST. JOHN: Do you think your successor will have a similar priority?

SEILER: Oh, I believe so. Michael has a lot of experience in elections. I think you will find him wonderful to work with.

ST. JOHN: One of the most noticeable trends has been a growing number of people who vote by mail. And you like that. Why?

SEILER: I believe that that trend has improved our turnout. In fact, I don't believe it, I know that it has improved the turnout in San Diego County. San Diego County's turnout is higher than the statewide average and just about every other county in Southern California. I think the last election, only Ventura county had a slightly higher turnout.

ST. JOHN: Are you a little competitive?

SEILER: Ah, yes, you can hear that in my voice. Not so much with the other registrars, but I'm seeing with vote by mail, it's more convenient for the voters. And this is a wonderful thing. And I believe -- I attribute, at least, that high turnout which didn't always exceed the statewide average. We saw that trend moving into the push for more mail voting. And we have consciously -- not tried to push it so much, but just to let voters know, we've done several mailings, little postcards out to people, by the way, if you'd like to vote by mail permanently, you can do so. And they have accepted that, embraced it, and they really like it.

ST. JOHN: The downside to that is on election night, you don't find out the results as soon. Is there any way we can get back to knowing what the as a results were on election night?

SEILER: Well, probably not. I think the trend with the permanent vote by mail, that was a change in the law over a decade ago. And with that change in the law, people have accepted the permanent vote by mail status. But I look at the real upside of all this. 1 minute after 8:00 when the polls closed, we released 33% of the entire vote in the entire election. Our voting system, because of the type of system that we have to use now, is somewhat slow. So we don't report our precinct results until 2:30 AM. But the precinct results are a smaller portion. So what you're seeing is 1 minute after the polls close, you're seeing 1/3 or more of the entire vote, which gives you a real good idea of how it's going. By midnight generally we have enough of the precinct votes in that people have a good idea of how those votes are going.

ST. JOHN: Although some of them really changed.

SEILER: Well, and they always could, and they always did. When we lose sight of is that in the past whenever there was a really close race, it wasn't over until every last vote was counted. But I will say too, there has been a growth in the number of provisional voters. And this is what really slows us down. It's not so much the mail ballots. We can get those into the count, seven, eight days after the election. That's not really what's slowing us down. What is slowing us down is the number of people who simply go to the wrong polling place.

ST. JOHN: If you were going to remain in the office, the next thing perhaps would be an education program to encourage people to actually cast their mail-in ballot early so they'll be part of that 8:00 result. Or what would prevent them from becoming one of those pesky provisional ballots?

SEILER: Well, it would be just to encourage people to go to the correct polling place. And this is where, going back to my appreciation to the media, where the media has been so good to me and allowed me to say this, find your polling place on the back of your sample ballot, go online, give us a call, find your correct polling place. But people don't. And I think that they have just discovered that there's a great deal of convenience of just going to any polling place. Maybe these are the voters who are perhaps interested only in the top content or maybe one of the statewide propositions. So what's on their ballot may not be so totally important to them. Do we serve those voters through that process? Yes, we do. And those voters might not otherwise vote. So I think that's an important thing to consider.

ST. JOHN: Yeah.

SEILER: But going back to looking historically, it was always the case that until the county certified the election, and we've always had 28 days, that has not changed in decades, you didn't really know the outcome until every last ballot was counted. And in some cases, it had gone over.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So you didn't have anything like the filling in the bubble debacle, you remember with Donna Frye and Jerry Sanders. That was before your time where there was a big recount. But what was perhaps the most difficult election in your five year career here?

SEILER: Probably the most difficult election was that first February 2008 presidential primary election. First of all, the timing was a little bit different. But we had just been told a few months prior to that election that we could no longer use our voting system. So we had to completely change our whole thrust. We reorganized everything. And in a huge county like San Diego, it's kind of like trying to turn the titanic on a time. It was very difficult. We got through it. We did it. I think the approach that we came up with was a sound one, and we just continued to build on the process. We have very much stabilized our operations in the department. But that first election was tough because it was a brand-new way of conducting the entire operation.

ST. JOHN: Once you got past that one, that was like a trial by fire, right?

SEILER: That was definitely trial by fire. Then the November 2008 election, I'll never forget. It just is an indelible memory for me, the lines of cars wrapped around our building waiting to come in and drop off their ballots. The close of registration, we were open until midnight, and as of 11:30 at night, people were swarming onto our facility there on Ruffin Road. And I thought oh, my gosh! Are we going to have to shut these gates with people still coming in? And then magically a few minutes to midnight, it all quieted down, everybody who was there in time was allowed to register to vote, and it all calmed down.

ST. JOHN: Democracy in action!

>> It was thrilling. It was absolutely thrilling. But it was a little bit scary too.

ST. JOHN: Do you have a new facility that's about to break ground this month I think in Kearny Mesa. So people who are used to going to the old registrar's office there on Ruffin Road, where will they go in the future?

SEILER: We are delighted with this. From the time I arrived we knew that we were eventually going to move. We were looking at alternate facilities elsewhere throughout the county. And I always said I really like that location where we currently are. And I am so delighted because the builder at the county operations center was able to convince a local property owner to sell to the county a property that is directly adjacent to that county operations center. So that's where the -- in fact they're tearing down the old building that's on that site and tomorrow at 2:30 in the afternoon, we'll have the groundbreaking for the new facility. It's going to be wonderful.


SEILER: It'll be wonderful for the staff, and wonderful for the public.

ST. JOHN: I hadn't realized it was right next door. I thought it was a little bit more inaccessible. But it's right next door?

SEILER: It is, yes, less than a quarter of a mile, I would say, from the current facility. So it's still centrally located in the Kearny Mesa area. The parking will be much better. And it will be part of the whole county campus of county offices.

ST. JOHN: Good! So one other thing that happened during your tenure, you got a website where people can check campaign contributions, something that the county was a little bit behind the city in getting. And you have some interesting reports on there, people in different parties registering to vote. I wondered about that register to vote report. I noticed it only comes out once a month. So when you go to the website and you want to find out how many independents are registered in San Diego, you can find it on the registrar's website in great detail. Why isn't that there is not a historical -- you don't leave up previous months so you can see the long-term trends?

SEILER: Well, it seems to me that we do have past official reports that have been reported to the secretary of state. So there is some history out there.

ST. JOHN: On the secretary of state's website?

SEILER: Well, yes, on that site, but also I believe on ours. Those are the ones that we have reported to the secretary of state at statutorily designated times. But yes, the monthly report is the most recent. I don't know, I suppose if people are interested, we could leave those monthly reports up.

ST. JOHN: Well, just in terms of looking at the changing trends. Because it is interesting, isn't it, how the political character of San Diego is changing over time. That's one of the best ways of finding that out.

SEILER: Oh, definitely. And San Diego has been a very interesting place to be in terms of the political changes because when I first arrived, there was a majority of Republicans. Then in 2008, it switched to the majority of Democrats. Then it switched back to Republicans, and then it was sort of neck and neck. And it does change.

ST. JOHN: You see that trend continuing? Or do you think the Republican party will rise to the challenge and find a way to appeal to more voters?

SEILER: Well, the Republican party has at times been very, very active in soliciting voter registration. So it's not for lack of trying that they might be a little bit behind. But yes, the dynamic could shift back and forth. It's very close.

ST. JOHN: You have said that when you leave you plan in your retirement to visit every registrar's office in the state. Was that a joke?

SEILER: No, I was serious about that!

SEILER: I have been in elections for 24 years. I started in the secretary of state's office, and I have so enjoyed my colleagues throughout the state, I have a high regard for elections in California. I have a high regard for my colleagues. And I have visited many of them, but not all of them. And when I broach the topic with my husband, I thought he would look at me like I had two heads or something. But he loved theed why. Of so we'll at some point pile in the car.

ST. JOHN: That's amazing! And one more thing before you go, what do you think is the most important challenge facing your successor, Michael Vu?

SEILER: Well, I think that one of the most important challenges is to continue to have the trust and transparency in the elections process. I believe he will do a magnificent job of that. And I think also at some point, maybe not even during his tenure, but at some point, 10, 15 years from now, it probably is going to be important for the county to think about a new voting system. And what that will be right now is a very mirky picture.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Thank you so much! And enjoy your retirement.

SEILER: Thank you very much.