Riverside County moves forward with policy changes to improve future elections

Riverside County moves forward with policy changes to improve future elections

City News Service Connect

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday tentatively approved a series of steps to improve how future elections in Riverside County are managed, but appropriations for the modifications will be decided after the start of the next fiscal year.

“We have to maintain integrity and continue working to achieve trust among our constituents,” board Chair Karen Spiegel said. “The ultimate goal for all of us is to make sure we improve the process, improve trust, and people shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

The board was presented with an 11-page “After-Action Review” of the 2020 election and the lingering ramifications of the problems that surfaced. The report was jointly authored by staff from the Office of the Registrar of Voters and the Executive Office.

The report did not address the alleged voting irregularities and fraud claims that resulted in a flurry of lawsuits and forensic audits, including the one underway in neighboring Arizona, following the Nov. 3 general election. However, it did point to difficulties in voting procedures and the need for changes to bolster confidence in how elections are run locally.

“Voting is the voice of our constituents,” Spiegel said. “That’s how they share what they want. That’s the most important thing we need to focus on.”

Officials said four executive orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom and at least one bill approved by the Legislature between June and September led to higher workloads for registrar’s staff and a series of significant adjustments in how ballots were distributed and collected.

The biggest change was the conversion, based on the coronavirus stay- at-home orders, of every registered voter in the county to absentee status. In the 2016 presidential election, there were 724,283 ballots mailed, while in the most recent one, 1,243,154 ballots were sent — an increase of 70%, which required printing and mailing on a scale the county had never experienced, according to the report.

Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer said COVID fears seriously impacted the logistical and staffing components of the election.

“A lot of individuals were not interested in working other than in telecommuting, which we don’t do,” she told the board. “People also not interested in coming to work could apply for unemployment benefits. So recruitment was an issue.”

In previous contests, as many as 600 polling stations were available, staffed by 3,500 workers, most of them temporary hires. But Spencer said the same accommodations were not possible in November.

The alternative was to open 130 Voter Assistance Centers countywide, situated in places with concentrated populations. Officials tried to ensure lists were available to the public well in advance of election day, telling them where to go.

People who received an absentee ballot were still permitted to vote at one of the centers, as long as they didn’t also mail in a ballot. It was unclear how many voters may have tried to visit a familiar polling station, only to find it closed.

Another hang-up occurred when the California Secretary of State’s Office activated the new ballot tracking system enacted under the executive orders.

“When the Secretary of State turned on the new ballot tracking system on Sept. 28, it automatically sent a notification to all registered voters claiming their ballots had been mailed on Sept. 10,” according to the report. “This notification was inaccurate because the ballots did not start going in the mail until Oct. 5.”

The snafu caused anxiety among some voters, but it was ultimately ironed out.

As with prior elections, the vote-by-mail ballot surge ahead of election day created a logjam on election night. According to the report, the main stumbling block was opening envelopes and smoothing ballots for scanning, which can only be done by hand.

The narrative lastly summarized problems that arose during the special elections in Cathedral City and Eastvale in February. Printing and providing ballots for all registered voters in the cities on time were at the heart of the trouble.

The vendors responsible for managing the production got them printed and sent — but not until the day before the special elections. The vendors had tried to get them into circulation the Saturday before the elections, but according to the registrar, the U.S. Postal Service had not been advised of the Saturday delivery, and therefore, nothing was arranged.

Voters who chose to visit polling places were still able to cast ballots.

The report included the following recommendations:

— securing state approval to always initiate the tabulation of ballots up to 15 days ahead of election day, as was permitted in the last election cycle, to expedite counting, instead of the customary 10 days;

— hiring new or additional vendors to handle production of ballots;

— adding staff for 24/7 operations “to meet demand of a large-scale election,” requiring increased appropriations for the registrar in some years; and

— elevating the registrar’s budget in the next fiscal year to enable the acquisition of new equipment for the Voter Assistance Centers, in anticipation of them possibly becoming permanent.

Supervisor Chuck Washington wondered about the cost of adding staff, and Spencer said she could not be certain, but she gathered a 50% increase in personnel might be required.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said he was not inclined to approve more funding until there was further discussion about formation of a citizens’ advisory committee on elections, which would take over responsibilities from the board ad hoc committee now in place.

The board voted 4-0 — with Washington abstaining — to consider establishing the committee and assess funding needs during its July 27 meeting, after the start of the 2021-22 fiscal year. Most of the report’s recommendations are also expected to be formally adopted at that meeting.

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