Political Notebook

After Madera successes, will Fresno County overhaul elections system for 2020?

The 2020 presidential election could look drastically different to the average voter in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Madera County was one of just five California counties to opt in to a new election system established by the Voter’s Choice Act that prioritizes by-mail voting and technological solutions over the traditional Election Day rush to the polls.

After a few hiccups in the 2018 primary, Madera saw major success in November – higher turnout than neighboring counties, quicker results turnaround, less headache from provisional ballots and the prospect of cheaper elections for the county.

Under the new system, every voter is sent an absentee ballot along with the usual election materials. Drop boxes open 10 days before Election Day, and touch-screen voting machines are used in addition to paper ballots. Election workers have access to voter information in real time, allowing anyone who misplaced their ballot to digitally surrender it without having to vote provisionally.

Madera’s neighbor took notice.

Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth told The Bee in an interview that Fresno could adopt the new system for the March 2020 presidential primary election. She recently went out to bid for new election equipment, for which the county has already received state and federal money.

Kings and Tulare counties will not make the switch, citing a variety of reasons including high costs and a steep learning curve in the new law’s rules. But the changes in Fresno and Madera could lead to increased voter participation in a 2020 election already expected to shatter turnout records in the state and beyond.

Madera successes

The 2018 cycle was not the first time Madera County Clerk Rebecca Martinez modernized her elections office.

She purchased new voting equipment shortly after she assumed office in 1990. She remembers using the old system – hulking machines with huge levers and curtains for privacy – in the June primary before debuting her new machines in November.

Her ballot machines and printers served the county faithfully for nearly three decades, but Martinez knew it was time for an upgrade. The previous machines ran on the Windows XP operating system, which Windows ended support for in 2014. She saw an opportunity after the Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act in 2016, which provided tools and guidance for technological elections overhauls.

Initially, 14 counties considered adopting Voter’s Choice Act standards. But only five actually went through with it: San Mateo, Sacramento, Nevada, Napa and Madera. Of those five, Madera was the last to pull the trigger, making the choice in October 2017.

Martinez described a very labor-intensive setup process that unfolded between October 2017 and June 2018.

She first shelled out $800,000 on new voting machines, which she described as being similar to tablets. Martinez said this upgrade would have been necessary regardless of the new law.

Daniel Garcia, Madera County Deputy Clerk, demonstrates the electronic Dominion Voting System, as Rebecca Martinez, Madera County Clerk, looks on in the elections office, Monday Jan. 14, 2019. The devices proved successful and popular with voters in the 2018 election. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Elections staff then had to hold a series of community meetings explaining the changes to voters.

Instead of 40 polling places on Election Day, there were just six voting centers. Every voter received an absentee ballot, and the county put up a handful of drop boxes – four in June and five in November. Any Madera County resident could use any drop box or voting center to vote.

“You may live in Madera and decide to drive up to Bass Lake for dinner,” Martinez said. “And then you remember that you need to vote. You can stop in Oakhurst on your way back, and we can check you in electronically and print the correct ballot for where you live.”

Nearly 68 percent of Madera County voters turned out for November’s election. This was nearly 16 percentage points more than the county’s 2014 general election turnout. It was nearly 12 percentage points higher than turnout in Fresno and about six points higher than Merced County to the north.

Martinez said she held a number of meetings with voter advocates to ensure they had an understanding of the new rules. She also posted a variety of notices and sent several mailed notices of the changes.

As the new program unfolded, there were some kinks to work out.

Some voters complained about the polling place changes, Martinez said. Many did not take advantage of the drop boxes opening 10 days before the election.

At the Madera Government Center, the county’s most-trafficked drop box and voting center, only 11 voters submitted their ballots on the first two days, Oct. 27 and 28. The flow increased the following week, peaking at 90 voters the day before the election. More than 1,000 came in to vote in the traditional fashion on Election Day.

This led to some lines, which Martinez said is unusual for Madera County.

Staffing these centers was tricky, as Martinez found she overstaffed on the days leading up to the elections. But this was ironed out by November, Martinez said.

Overall, Madera County saved thousands running its elections the new way.

“The typical (staffing) cost is between $50,000 and $60,000 per election,” Martinez said. “We spent $48,000 in June and $44,000 in November. “

Martinez hopes to motivate Madera voters to take better advantage of early voting, which she said would allow her to shave staffing costs even more.

Another positive came in the new system’s reduced use of provisional ballots.

Traditionally, someone who is registered to vote by mail must surrender that ballot at any polling place in order to vote in person. If the person does not have his or her ballot, then that person must vote provisionally.

These ballots take a long time to process, Martinez said, as her staff must verify the voter’s identity and make sure he or she did not vote more than once.

Voters are issued electronic cards based on their precinct, and inserted into a digital voting device, as shown in the Madera County elections office, Jan. 14, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Under the new system, an elections worker can check a voter’s status and confirm the clerk has not received a by-mail ballot. The voter can then surrender this ballot digitally, and a ballot specific to where that voter lives will be printed.

Martinez said this on-demand printing serves two functions: It cuts waste, in that her office isn’t printing hundreds of different ballots to have on-hand at polling places; and it ensures that polling places never run out of a specific ballot.

Another plus: Madera County was able to register voters on the day of the election at each of its five voting centers. Same-day registration is allowed under California law, but counties often limit the practice to a central location. In Fresno County, for example, voters had to go to the county clerk’s downtown office.

The voting centers are each connected to the California Secretary of State’s office, which allows for immediate confirmation of each new registration.

While every county saw an increase in voters over the dismal 2014 turnout, the lack of provisional ballots and ease of same-day voting may have allowed Madera to count its ballots and certify sooner.

Martinez certified her election on Nov. 21. Merced County certified on Dec. 2 and Fresno County on Dec. 4.

“I see (the new system) as the future of voting in California, because it does allow the voter to make that choice,” Martinez said. “It gives voters more options on how to vote, and it gives them time to make those decisions.”

Statewide feedback

The California Secretary of State’s office agreed with Martinez’s assessment, almost verbatim.

“The results of the 2018 Election prove that the Voter’s Choice Act should be the future of elections throughout California,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “All five of the counties that adopted the Voter’s Choice Act surpassed the record statewide turnout in 2018.”

He continued: “Modernizing elections and providing voters with more options for when, where, and how they can cast their ballots will continue to improve civic participation.”

James Schwab, Padilla’s chief deputy, worked on much of the outreach that took place within the five counties prior to the election and since.

In general, the other four early adopters had a voting season similar to Madera’s: Higher turnout, but also some confusion and lines on Election Day.

Schwab noted that 95 percent of voters in these five counties returned their ballots in an envelope, meaning some who were previously not registered to vote by mail did so after being sent a ballot through the new system.

Community outreach, particularly getting residents to offer their feedback, continues to be a major priority, Schwab said.

It’s not yet clear how many additional counties will adopt the new system, Schwab said. His office is preparing to reach out to each county in the near future. The state’s largest county, Los Angeles, has already opted in.

The cost of upgrading can be a prohibitive factor for some counties.

Valley updates

In Kings County, Clerk Kristine Lee said she is at an impasse with her county’s Board of Supervisors due to the cost of election updates, which she said are needed regardless if Kings chooses to adopt the new Voter’s Choice system.

Some funding help is available through the state and federal governments, including $134 million in state money that will be used to match dollar-for-dollar the cost of new election equipment.

Tulare County will also not opt in, citing both costs and the potential perils of using a new system for the first time during a presidential election.

“We’d rather do it right the first time then try to roll out something that we weren’t thoroughly prepared for,” said Emily Oliveira, an elections program coordinator.

Martinez also expressed some doubt over whether her fellow registrars should implement the new system ahead of 2020, saying she never considered it. Had Madera not opted in in 2018, she would have waited until 2022 to test the new system out on a smaller voting population.

“Any county interested in doing this for 2020 should definitely have started by now,” Martinez said.

Fresno County will now seek to replicate the successes seen in the pilot program counties within a tighter time frame, as California moved up its primary election from June to March in order to amplify the state’s role in selecting presidential nominees.

Orth said she was “seriously evaluating” the voter center system for March 2020, but she did not have an estimate as to when she would make a final decision. She hopes to update the county’s election equipment whether it opts into voting centers or not, she added. She expects to take a final proposal to the Board of Supervisors in the next few months.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics

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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.