Last November's election-count troubles were mainly due to changing voting habits, with 50 percent of mail-in ballots turned in at polling places on Election Day, Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said during a special hearing by the county Finance and Government Operations Committee.
Bushey delivered a report to the committee on Jan. 28 outlining the problems that occurred during the Nov. 4 election and potential remedies. The committee, chaired by Supervisor Joe Simitian and vice-chaired by Supervisor Ken Yeager, wants to prevent the same problems from marring the June 2016 presidential primary and following November's election, the supervisors said.
Logistics, under-staffing and outdated equipment also contributed to the slow reporting, Bushey said. Rumors that the abrupt resignation of a key information-technology manager a day before the election caused the slow returns were unfounded, she said.
The registrar's office had 150,000 ballots -- out of a total 404,000 ballots cast -- left to tally after Election Day, largely vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. California law in 2002 changed to allow permanent absentee voting by mail. Its popularity has increased exponentially, transforming much of the way elections are conducted in the state, she said.
Seventy percent of the county's registered voters are signed up to vote by mail. Of those who actually cast ballots, 70 to 85 percent do so by mail, she said. Ballots returned to polling stations, rather than sent through the U.S. Postal Service, grew from 30 percent in 2008 to 50 percent in 2014. Simitian said he has heard anecdotally that more voters wait before casting their ballots because they want to be fully informed.
Bushey said that tabulating votes hits an inevitable bottle neck when ballots must be physically removed from envelopes and fed through voting machines. No existing technologies are capable of automating the mail-in system, she said.
Last year's slow returns were not new. The registrar's office finished tallying vote-by-mail ballots by Nov. 9. The five-day time frame was consistent with past elections, Bushey said. Vote-by-mail ballot counting was completed in eight days in November 2012.
Provisional ballots were completed in 13 days in 2014; in 2012, it took 15 days, she said. Provisionals require that signatures and addresses be cross-checked by hand for validity to ensure that a person did not vote twice. Provisional-ballot voters are those who went to the wrong polling place or were supposed to vote by mail but don't have their mail-in ballot. Either way, they are then allowed to vote at that polling station. About 10 percent of ballots in November were provisional, she said.
While conceding the process is slow, the counting speed is in line with, if not faster than, comparable counties, Bushey said, despite Santa Clara County having one of the highest vote-by-mail rates of any county in California.
She said she is asking for funding to hire additional staff during the vote counts to speed up the process.
Committee members suggested that staffing should be 24 hours a day before, during and after the elections. Simitian and Yeager instructed Bushey to return to their next hearing on Feb. 25 with an estimated cost for increased staffing. But Simitian cautioned against submitting a proposal that would only partially fix the problems. It would be unlikely that the Board of Supervisors would later approve additional funding for staff, he said.
Simitian noted that pending state legislation, if passed, might help speed up the vote counts by allowing ballots to be taken from polling places during Election Day and counted while the polls are still open. Current law prohibits any ballots from being moved before polls close.
Bushey identified additional issues with the 2014 election, including centralized counting. Currently, electronic-ballot information is brought from precincts to the registrar's office, where the results are tallied.
Enabling votes to be processed at the precincts, as they are in San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, would allow the results to be transmitted directly to the registrar's office in real time. Santa Clara County is one of a few large counties still using central counting.
The registrar's office is in the planning stages of switching to precinct scanners. Bushey estimated that each costs $10,000, and the county might need to spend $1 million. The committee asked if hand-held scanners could be used at precincts in the interim.
Bushey submitted a plan to the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 18 for a new voting system that would allow for counting at the precincts. The plan recommends that the county explore leasing the voting system rather then purchasing it, so the county could pay for the system over time rather than as one capital expense. The county would also avoid getting stuck with a system it can't use if the Secretary of State later decertifies the system, as happened in 2007, she added.
The committee also discussed possibly moving to an entirely mail-in system. Bushey said it would not improve speed and could further weigh down the post-election count if everyone deposited their ballots late.
But it could result in significant cost savings, even if the county paid for return postage. A countywide special election with polling stations costs $5,765,000, but a mail-in election would cost $2,874,000 -- a saving of $2,890,820 -- according to the registrar's report. Paying for return postage would likely increase voter turnout, as it has in Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
An initial review of state law indicates the county would likely need state legislation to pass to allow all-mail elections, according to the report. Existing law allows for mail-ins during special elections, for school districts, special districts and in smaller cities. A handful of counties successfully passed legislation for pilot programs using only mail-in ballots, according to the registrar.
The supervisors asked Bushey to return to the next meeting on Feb. 25 with some hard numbers pertaining to costs for additional staffing as well as information about whether precinct scanners, whether hand-held or free-standing, could be connected with the existing computer system. They also instructed staff to return with a study of standards for the percentage spread that triggers an automatic recount.