San Jose Mercury News: Election error audit in the works

Santa Clara County’s gaffe-plagued elections office has made one mistake too many for state officials.

An Assembly committee Wednesday approved an audit of Santa Clara County’s Registrar of Voters office requested by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, who cited a litany of errors since 2010 from erroneous ballots to counting mishaps that could raise doubts about the validity of election results.

“It’s not uncommon for administrative mistakes to be made, but the frequency of these mistakes is of particular concern,” said Low, chair of the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. “And I don’t know of any other county having such issues.”

Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey said that she’s all ears if the audit  — expected to take about five months — approved by the Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee results in productive insights. But she said her office has implemented various measures in the wake of past mistakes and “we continue to do our best to look at ways to improve all of our processes.

“There are unique situations, hundreds if not thousands of situations in which something could be programmed wrong, the wrong document could be submitted for processing — there are so many avenues of something going wrong,” Bushey said. “And we have had some things slip through in the past.”

The call for a state review comes after a county auditor recommended a move toward holding elections entirely by mail as soon as possible. The state has been pushing for that after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last fall allowing the change.

The new model, which will be phased in starting next year in some counties, would involve sending all registered voters a ballot four weeks before the election. That ballot could be returned by mail, via drop box, or cast in person at a “vote center” — universal polling places where anyone in the county could go.

When the law was passed in September, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla lauded it as “landmark legislation” that would modernize the ballot and “improve the voting experience.”

“For many working Californians it may make more sense to cast a ballot the week before Election Day at a location closer to where they work, or where they drop off their kids, or where they go to college,” Padilla said. “Why limit voting to one location on a single Tuesday?”

Bushey said the soonest that Santa Clara County could do elections entirely by mail-in ballot would be 2020. The idea has yet to be approved by the county board of supervisors.

“We’re just at the beginning of the process,” said Bushey, who added the system makes sense in a county where about 75 percent of voters already use a mail-in ballot. “I think it will be more convenient for voters and it doesn’t increase any problems.”

But Low said voters need to be assured the ballots they receive are 100 percent accurate before the county can be entrusted to run elections entirely by mail ballot, and cited recent errors by the registrar’s office.

Those mistakes include a wrong ballot argument being sent to a Campbell school district in 2016, sample ballots missing candidates in two school districts in 2014, a missing opposition argument on a San Jose measure in 2014; and numerous issues involving vote by mail ballots that were either erroneously counted or sent to ineligible voters, Low said.

Former San Jose City Councilman Manh Nguyen, narrowly defeated by 12 votes in the June 7, 2016 primary, has sued the registrar’s office and his opponent, Councilman Lan Diep, alleging election officials botched the tally. Vote totals changed over two recounts, though Diep still finished ahead of Nguyen.

The registrar’s office last week announced an error in voter information guides for an April 25 special election in Campbell that misstated the month a moratorium on considering medical marijuana dispensaries would end. The registrar’s office said the city sent incorrect information.

“This audit will shed light on what mechanisms and safeguards the county has in place, and what should be in place to prevent mistakes from happening in the future,” Low said.