County to purchase better election devices – County supervisors authorize equipment to avoid future election gaffes

Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday authorized the purchase of roughly $650,000 in equipment to speed up election ballot counts and stressed the need for better communication and protocols in the Registrar of Voters’ Office to prevent a repeat of the problems that cropped up during the June 8 primary.

“Sixty-two percent of ballots cast in this election were by mail. That has a whole lot of implications,” Supervisor John Benoit said during a 90-minute hearing on an Executive Office report detailing what went wrong during and after that election.

“It takes seven steps (to process) every single vote-by-mail ballot,” said Benoit, who represents desert communities on the five-member board. “It’s understandable there would be glitches. The pressure became intense because (the registrar’s office) was not communicating well.”

He said on election day and the days immediately following, information should be frequently posted on the registrar’s Web site and should be easy to find and comprehend.

The Executive Office’s 45-page analysis documented the issues that contributed to the slow vote tally and the misplacement of 12,563 ballots. A lawsuit to have the ballots counted was resolved Jul 9, when a judge ruled they should be included in the county’s final tally. The tabulation wrapped up the following day.

According to the Executive Office, budget constraints led Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore to hire 29 fewer temporary workers and slash overtime expenses by 75 percent, which impeded the expedited handling of ballots.

Dunmore’s 2009-10 fiscal year budget was $9.7 million, down from roughly $13.5 million the prior year, according to the report.

Executive Officer Bill Luna told the board he is to blame for not anticipating the possible effects of budget cuts on the registrar’s office.

“Management must anticipate and solve problems,” he said.

The report reiterated that a communication breakdown caused the late discovery of the 12,563 mail-in ballots.

The absentee ballots were sorted at the U.S. Postal Service’s distribution center on Redlands Boulevard in San Bernardino, and then routed to a Moreno Valley post office – where they sat until the morning after the election, when they were sent to a post office in Riverside and discovered well after the 8 p.m. election day deadline for processing.

Dunmore said there was no arrangement for her staff to retrieve ballots at the Moreno Valley station.

Supervisor Bob Buster noted that the station opened in late 2008, and in the elections held between then and now, no problems had surfaced.

“I don’t see how the registrar could’ve known to … find out that the ballots were in their possession,” said Buster, whose district includes Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, De Luz and other communities along or near Interstate 15.

“We ought to recognize that the primary responsibility of the registrar is to collect and receive (absentee ballots) from the mail, guarantee their security when they’re in her possession and count them as quickly and accurately as possible,” Buster added.

Unlike neighboring Los Angeles and Orange counties, Riverside County has had no formalized protocol for the collection of late-arriving ballots from the U.S. Postal Service.

According to the report, the registrar and the Postal Service’s area manager are ironing out how to coordinate the collection of absentee ballots from postal sites in the days leading up to an election.

The report further stated that the county’s half-dozen ballot scanners were not adequate to quickly process the 241,000 ballots cast in the June 8 primary.

Riverside was the last of California’s 58 counties to submit its election night report to the Secretary of State.

The supervisors gave the Executive Office authorization to purchase two additional Sequoia Voting System 400C Optech central ballot scanners, at $110,000 apiece; a $30,000 OPEX Model 51 extraction desk to make removing ballot cards from envelopes easier; and a mail sorting machine.

The latter would cost about $400,000, said Ray Smith, an Executive Office spokesman.

The Executive Office emphasized the need for more early voting – absentee ballots can be mailed 29 days before an election and counted a week before election day.

County officials said the registrar can make ballot drop-off sites available at libraries and city halls, using the county’s Web site to highlight the advantages of early voting.

The Executive Office said the registrar should not hesitate to ramp up temp hiring prior to an election “to process and count all vote-by-mail ballots in-house as of election day.”   Other recommendations included increasing the use of relay transportation teams to ferry ballots from the county’s 22 ballot collection centers to the central tabulating room in Moreno Valley, and frequently posting election night updates on the registrar’s Web site to keep the public informed with the latest information.

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