Local Election

Tulare County names new registrar of voters in wake of Election Day debacle

Voters cast their votes after waiting in line past 8 p.m. on Election Night 2016 at the Tulare County elections office in Visalia.
Voters cast their votes after waiting in line past 8 p.m. on Election Night 2016 at the Tulare County elections office in Visalia. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Tulare County supervisors appointed a new registrar of voters and created a new county department in the wake of what was perceived as an Election Day debacle.

Supervisors voted 5-0 Tuesday to create the Department of Registrar of Voters and appointed Michelle Baldwin, chief clerk of the Board of Supervisors, as interim registrar of voters.

The action pointedly removes the function of registrar of voters from Tulare County Auditor-Controller Rita Woodard, who is also the treasurer-tax collector.

On Election Day, Woodard came under intense scrutiny when several polling places experienced long lines, a shortage of ballots, and in some cases wrong ballots being given to voters.

Initial election results were delayed by about 2 1/2 hours and it was several days before close races were called as thousands of provisional ballots were processed. Tulare County had 154,000 registered voters for the Nov. 8 presidential election, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. By comparison, Fresno County has nearly three times that number, at 437,423.

Woodard said the board’s action to remove the registrar of voters duties from her office does not bother her.

“I think the board made a good decision, and I wish Michelle Baldwin all the luck in the world,” she said.

Although some of the criticism from Election Day did bother her, “ultimately, I was the registrar of voters and I take responsibility,” she said.

Supervisors said numerous complaints caused them to ask the county administrative officer to come up with a plan of action.

“I never had so many calls as this last election,” said Supervisor Mike Ennis of Porterville. “Let’s get this organized and moving in the right direction.”

Supervisor Allen Ishida of Lindsay said a friend had a problem at a polling place in Lindsay so “they told him to drive to Visalia” to vote at the county elections office, which he did.

In surrounding counties, the person in charge of elections is themselves an elected official, although their array of duties varies. In Merced and Kings, the assessor and clerk-recorder is also the registrar of voters. In Fresno, the county clerk does it. In Madera, it’s the clerk-recorder. In Kern, it’s the auditor-controller-county clerk.

“Most often, the registrar of voters in under the umbrella of an elected official,” said Rebecca Martinez, Madera County clerk-recorder and former president of the statewide organization of county elections officials.

The Tulare County auditor-controller, an elected office, was given the registrar of voters function in 1997 by the Board of Supervisors.

“The registrar of voters has been the stepchild of every organization,” Ishida said. “We just need to bring it out and have it be its own separate department.”

Other evidence of unhappiness with the elections division included the experience of former Assemblywoman Connie Conway of Tulare, who told reporters that she arrived at her polling place and was told they had run out of ballots. She asked for a Spanish language ballot but it was missing two local races, so she waited in line to use a voting machine.

The county administrative officer will now do a study of the elections department and report to county supervisors within 90 days with recommendations. Tulare County’s next election is not until November 2017.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold