The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday requested administrators to report in January about the slow tally of votes in the Nov. 4 election in the county, which was the last of nine Bay Area counties to provide a total count for the public.
Supervisor Cindy Chavez during the Nov. 18 board meeting in San Jose criticized Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey for in her opinion not communicating enough with the community about how her office operated during the election.
Supervisor Joe Simitian said that a glitch on the Registrar's website on election night prevented viewing of updated voting results until about 9:30 p.m. and a complete tally was not available until after 4 a.m. Nov. 5, making it the last county in the Bay Area to complete its count and among "the slowest in the state."
Simitian also cited the controversy about the resignation of a veteran information technology manager for the Registrar the day or morning before Election Day.
Reports in the news media about the resignation prompted Bushey to a seek a review of the county's election results by the California Secretary of State, which declined to do so.
The board directed County Executive Jeffrey Smith to review the methods and technology used by the Registrar that may have hurt its ability to add up the county's votes, seek requests for qualifications from for-profit and nonprofit groups that could help the county solve problems with its voting system and report back by January.
The Registrar's office has used older vote counting technology since 2007, when a modern touch screen system it bought in 2003 was decertified by the Secretary of State amid concerns over potential security breeches.
The Registrar was faulted this fall for having to resend 100,000 sample ballots to mail-in voters due to printing errors that left out a number of candidates and their statements in races for the Gavilan Joint Community College District and the Santa Clara County Unified School District.
The office then repeated the printing error in about 1,000 ballots it sent out later to voters in the same two races.
Michael Helms, a board of trustees candidate for the Santa Clara County Unified School District, told the board today that he was one of the candidates whose statement was initially not printed for voters after he paid the county's fee of $2,500 for it.
Simitian replied that what Helms and other candidates went though would be looked at.
"I will ask that the county executive and the registrar of voters take a look at cases where there were problems with compliance as far as voter communication that they want to recommend to our board," Simitian said.
Bushey said she agreed that "accuracy, integrity and timeliness are all important matters that need to be considered and we are very open to any referral and questions and anything you'd like for us to look at."
She said she had alerted the board and the public that the county's vote total likely would be ready by about 4 a.m. - the final results were posted online at 4:36 a.m. -- consistent with previous elections and not due to any technical difficulties.
One major challenge for the county is its use of a central counting system, whereby paper ballots cast at precincts after polls close are stored and then all taken to the Registrar's office at 1555 Berger Drive to be counted.
The process is slow because employees then have to pass each of the paper ballots through optical scanners and for mail-in ballots, the signatures on the envelope of each have to be compared to the signatures of the voters on file before they can he opened and the ballots scanned, she said.
"In Santa Clara County we are one of the last counties in California to post results because we are one of the few remaining to actually have a central counting system," Bushey said.
The county's polling places received 150,000 vote-by-mail votes turned in on Election Day, such a huge influx that the county still had 119,000 votes left to count two days after the election, Bushey said.
The county has the highest rate of mail-in ballots of any major urban county in the state, she said.
A better solution for adding up votes would be a precinct count system, where optical scanners are in every precinct and poll workers put each vote through the scanner as they are cast throughout the day, with the results stored in a memory card and after polls close are transmitted to the Registrar's office from a laptop computer, according to Bushey.
The office plans to rid itself of its old vote counting system eventually, seek public input on requests for proposals for a new one by the middle of 2015 and receive vendor proposals in 2016, but the updated system would not be approved and delivered until after mid-2017, she said.
The Registrar's office has admitted that its longtime information technology manager quit a day before the election but has declined to detail why, citing employee confidentiality.
Then news reports came out at the same time about a missing hard drive, cellphone and employee badge from the Registrar's office, none of which was true, Bushey told the board.
Chavez said that she received many emails from people concerned about whether their votes were counted.
She said that the Registrar's office needed to develop a
communications strategy and a broader review of its management beyond voter machine technology to clear up confusion over mail-in ballots and other issues such as what the correct postage needed on mail-in ballot is and allowing observers to watch vote counting on Berger Drive in San Jose.
She asked Bushey to take "a bigger step back than what you have presented to us," Chavez said.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman noted that about 51 percent of county's approximately 575,000 voters cast ballots in the Nov. 4 election and that about 72 percent of county voters now request mail-in ballots leaving only 28 percent casting votes at polling booths.
That along with the large number of mail-in ballots dropped off at precincts on Election Day showed that mail-in voting "is clearly the trend" in the county as it is in other parts of the nation, such as Oregon, Colorado and Washington that are vote-by-mail only, Wasserman said.
Wasserman said he would like the county to discuss the possibility of having the county's elections be mail-in only.
After the board hearing, Bushey agreed that communication from her office "could have been better" and that there was "room for improvement."
She said that media reports about items missing from Registrar's office "did not originate from me."
The Registrar's office was prepared for Election Day and had by Nov. 3, counted all of the posted mail-in ballots it had received by the Oct. 31 deadline, Bushey said.
But that was before the avalanche of mail-in votes that arrived on Election Day from those who did not send their ballots in by the U.S. Postal Service, she said.
"The issue was the 150,000 vote by mail that all came in on one day," she said.
The problem with last-minute balloting from mail-in recipients is being felt all over the state and will continue, she said.
Any move toward an all mail-in election system would have to be approved by the state first, Bushey said.
On Jan. 1, 2017, Assembly Bill 1436, the state law permitting conditional registration -- where voters can register to vote at the polls on Election Day -- takes effect and will be yet another factor in future elections, she said.