Two years ago, Fresno County cut its number of polling sites in half in an effort to weather tough economic times. The move backfired.
In the high-profile 2010 gubernatorial election, many Fresno County residents said they were confused about where to vote, and voting-rights groups jumped on the county for limiting voter access. County leaders responded with a flurry of finger pointing that, in part, prompted the resignation of the county's top election official.
New elections chief Brandi Orth says the situation won't repeat itself.
A month after being named to the job, Orth is vowing to restore polling sites to pre-2010 levels and have enough qualified poll-workers in place to ensure smooth elections. The presidential primary is little more than three months out and the general election is in November.
"We heard from the community, and we're being responsive," she said.
Orth's plans leave little room for error. She acknowledges that money is tight and this month sent a report to the county Board of Supervisors, which controls her purse strings, warning that funding issues could arise.
"My goal obviously is to live within the budget, [but] if there are any unexpected problems, I may run short," Orth said.
Orth's predecessor, Victor Salazar, blamed funding cuts for the election problems in 2010. Salazar, who resigned last month after 11 years in office, said supervisors left him no choice but to scale back staffing and consolidate polling places.
He left office with the same financial concerns.
While Orth's budget is slightly more robust than Salazar's was in 2010 -- the board restored some funding after those elections -- Orth also faces additional work.
For one, bigger contests await, from the race to unseat President Barack Obama to what's expected to be a record number of state ballot initiatives, including Gov. Jerry Brown's controversial tax measure. Locally, several candidates for Fresno City Council and county supervisor square off.
"There are a lot of unknowns still out there, but we all are doing a lot more with less," said Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
Ballots to change
An early test for elections officials will be new, top-two primary voting on June 5. Voters will be casting primary ballots for candidates regardless of party; the top two vote-getters then go to a November runoff, even if they're both Democrat or Republican.
The process, which is an effort to stem partisanship, means ballots will contain a lot more people -- and add printing and proof-reading costs as well as increase the potential for error. Some places with long candidate lists may even require two ballots per voter, elections officials say.
"The cha-ching factor goes way up then and so does the administrative factor," Pellerin said.
"I don't know what I would do if some voters required two ballots and some voters just one," she added, referring to the complication of the top-two primary.
June ballots won't be set until after the filing deadline next month. Election officials, including Orth, hope that a new state law shifting most voter initiatives to November will limit the size and complexity of the June ballot.
Still, a handful of issues remain.
The primary is the first major election to use the newly drawn voter districts for Legislature and congressional offices. Even if election officials adapt without problems and get the right ballots to the right people, they expect to encounter voter confusion.
The elections also hinge on a large number of volunteers, who have been increasingly difficult to recruit. Orth's report to supervisors called early volunteer projections "doubtful" and suggested more paid help would be needed.
Additionally, Orth notes three longtime employees, with more than 60 years combined experience, have recently left her 23-person office and are yet to be replaced. The departures deal a blow to operations, she said, although she hopes to bring the former employees back to help temporarily with the elections.
More voting sites
The money that county supervisors added to the elections budget last year, which increased spending from $2.4 million to $3.6 million, will pay to add polling sites, Orth said.
The number of sites is yet to be determined, but she expects it to be close to the 286 during the last presidential election in 2008.
In November 2010, the number of sites fell to 114.
Voter advocate Kevin Hall, a member of the local chapter of Communities for a New California, said the increase in polling sites comes as good news.
"It was really confusing last time. It was not the way you think elections should be run," he said.
Hall's group accused the county of denying votes to more than 15,000 residents in the November 2010 election, namely to low-income and elderly voters. The group submitted a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice and says the county remains under investigation for its handling of the election.
Federal authorities won't comment on the matter.
Former elections clerk Salazar, who had long maintained that his office was underfunded, lobbied supervisors for more money after the 2010 election. He eventually succeeded, but tendered his resignation before the next big elections.
Salazar cited job frustration and health issues for the departure. He declined to comment for this story.
"Brandi doesn't have any wiggle room in the budget," said county Supervisor Susan Anderson, who once served as the elections clerk. "There are a lot of things that could throw the budget off. But if she's lucky, she'll be OK."
Anderson contends that Salazar's budget problems were partly self-inflicted. He made mistakes, she said, such as forgetting to put a contest on the 2010 ballot, which required the office to reprint ballots and spend money it didn't have.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously appointed Orth to take over for Salazar on Jan. 17.
Orth has been a county employee for 18 years, most recently as an analyst in the County Administrative Office, but she spent 10 years in the elections office as a financial manager and elections coordinator.
She will serve the remaining three years of Salazar's term and says she will run for the elected office after that.
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian praised Orth as hard-working and fiscally conscientious.
"I believe she'll do everything she can to stay within budget," Poochigian said. "If that's not the case, we'll have to see."
Election 2012: Key dates
Primary: June 5
General election: Nov. 6
March 9: Last day for candidate filing
April 26: Begin mailing sample ballots through May 26
May 7: Begin mailing vote-by-mail ballots
May 21: Last day to register to vote in the primary
May 24: Begin processing vote-by-mail ballots
May 29: Last day to request vote-by-mail ballot by mail
June 5: Last day to request vote-by-mail ballot in person
Fresno County's June ballot primaries
U.S. President (incumbent Barack Obama)
U.S. Senate (incumbent Dianne Feinstein)
County Board of Supervisors
Fresno Mayor, City Council
Statewide ballot measures
Proposition 28: New term limits for state legislators
Proposition 29: New cigarette tax to fund cancer research
County central committees
Clovis Unified School District bond measure
Read more election coverage at fresnobee.com/elex
Correction: Because of information supplied by the Fresno County Clerks office, some key election dates on page A7 Sunday were incorrect. Vote-by-mail ballots will be sent out starting May 7, not April 26. Vote-by-mail ballots will be processed starting May 24, not May 25.
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