Politics & Government

Fresno County will have a new election system in 2020

How can I be sure my ballot counts?

Brandi Orth, Fresno County Clerk of Registrar Voters, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how ballots are counted in Fresno County.
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Brandi Orth, Fresno County Clerk of Registrar Voters, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how ballots are counted in Fresno County.

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted the election system laid out by the California Voter’s Choice Act. The county will move from a precinct model to voting centers for the March 2020 presidential primary election.

The vote was 3-1 with Supervisor Brian Pacheco opposed. The board expressed some consternation over the choice, which Chairman Nathan Magsig said was being pushed on the county by the state of California.

The move will mean every registered voter in Fresno County will receive a mail-in ballot. The county will no longer operate 268 voting precincts, instead opting to open 50 voting centers – 10 of which will be open 10 days prior to election day, and 40 of which will be open three days early. Also, there will be secure drop boxes placed throughout the county for mail-in ballots.

Voters can get their personalized ballot at any voting center. Each voting center will have same-day registration.

Also, the county will upgrade its voting equipment, which was necessary regardless of choosing the VCA system or keeping the current precinct model.

Success in first five counties

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth recommended the switch. Her office held five community meetings throughout the county to gather feedback, most of which supported the change to the VCA model.

Orth also contacted the five counties that made the switch in 2018: Madera, Sacramento, San Mateo, Nevada and Napa. Each county election office reported that the experience was positive, and each has stuck with the new system.

Madera County saw increased voter turnout, quicker results turnaround and far fewer provisional ballots, which take a lot more time to verify.

Madera County Clerk Rebecca Martinez talks about replacing antiquated voting devices with all-digital equipment that gives voters easier access and options in the voting process.

Orth noted that more and more Fresno residents are voting by mail. During the March special election, 86 percent of votes were by mail. In the November general election, about 65 percent were by mail. Orth said she was confident this trend will continue.

Cost was a primary issue for either the VCA system or sticking to the precinct model. The county’s voting equipment is about 20 years old, and the California Secretary of State’s office issued new requirements in February that the county could not have met without an upgrade.

Under VCA, the immediate technology upgrades will cost about $1.7 million. There are state and federal grants available to cover this cost, and the county had already selected a vendor through a competitive bidding process. The ongoing cost per election will be about $431,000 per election: $131,000 for operational costs, $50,000 for voter outreach and $250,000 for two direct voter contacts (postcards) per election.

It would have been about $3.3 million to upgrade the voting equipment for 268 precincts, but the cost per election would have been about the same as in previous years.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla released a statement praising Fresno County’s decision.

“In 2020, voters in Fresno will now enjoy more options for when, where and how they cast their ballots, thanks to the Voter’s Choice Act.,” Padilla said. “I thank the leadership in Fresno County for embracing these pro-voter reforms.”

Public comment

Public comment on the issue during the supervisors meeting was fairly split.

Among those who opposed the VCA model was Fresno County Republican Party Chair Fred Vanderhoof, who said the new system will be vulnerable to cyberattacks. He stressed that accuracy was more important than efficiency in an election.

Samuel Molina, the California state director of advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, was in favor of the change. He said other counties saw slight increases in Latino and Asian-American voter turnout under the VCA model.

After the vote, Fresno County Democratic Party Chair Michael Evans expressed some concern over the new model, specifically over the secrecy in counting and verifying mail-in ballots. But overall, he said, the additional voting days should help more voters participate in the process.

Orth and her staff will now be under the gun to buy and test new equipment and complete the considerable outreach and voter education requirements by February, when the first voting centers will open for the March 3 primary.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.
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