San Jose Mercury News: State audit probes reasons behind Santa Clara County repeated election errors

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

SAN JOSE — A state audit of Santa Clara County’s elections office — which has been plagued with an inordinate amount of mistakes over the years — found that it lacks detailed policies employed in other counties to prevent errors and analyze them fully when they do occur.

The audit — called for by a frustrated Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, who previously chaired the assembly’s elections committee — reviewed 26 errors that have happened from 2010 to 2016. In addition to the lack of procedural guidelines, the audit found that the county doesn’t have a clear plan or process to alert voters potentially affected by an error in ballot materials.

And while “in most in most cases, it identified and took action to notify voters of the errors before the relevant elections,” auditors found that there’s no concrete system of recording these mistakes.

“Because some of the more significant errors Santa Clara County experienced were related to mapping and to inaccuracies in ballots and voter information guides, we expected to find that it had developed comprehensive policies and procedures to prevent these types of errors from recurring,” said State Auditor Elaine Howle on the report’s cover letter. “However, it has not done so.”

It added that the county “compiled the list of 26 errors using staff members’ collective memory and information it found in documents, emails, and press releases.”

Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, takes questions from reporters at a press conference on results of a state audit of the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters on Oct. 24, 2017. Eric Kurhi/Staff

Low called the county’s past performance in elections “disappointing,” highlighting a ballot gaffe in 2014 that affected more than 415,000 voters: A measure was missing the support and opposition arguments. While the registrar sent out corrective materials, it was an expensive mistake.

“That staff error cost the registrar upwards of a quarter-million dollers,” Low said. “We need to be responsible with taxpayer dollars — if this is just one case example, it’s important that we take corrective action immediately. These are valuable resources we need to protect.”

Registrar Shannon Bushey — who encouraged the audit and has been receptive to suggested fixes — said that her office has been “moving in the right direction” toward developing comprehensive policies, “but I do acknowledge that we do still have a ways to go — I whole-heartedly agree we need to go more in-depth.”

Bushey added that the report’s suggestions “are helpful and thoughtful.”

The county’s written response to the audit stated that the office has “hundreds of written procedures, checklists, manuals and other job aids,” but “many of its procedures need to be documented or need to be more detailed.”

However, the state auditor called that statement “misleading” and added that “in the cases where such documentation did exist, it was inadequate.”

For example, the division that determines what ballots go to which precincts has had a procedure manual since 2013 but it’s still in draft form, with only general instructions on how to use mapping software. Nearly a third of the mistakes made over the years have been mapping related.

Low said many of the mistakes happened under the authority of the former registrar — of the 19 that the county was responsible for, 12 occurred before Bushey took the helm in 2014.

Those earlier errors include a 2010 gaffe in which a candidate’s statement was omitted from the voter guide, but when the registrar attempted a fix by sending out a supplemental letter it included only that candidate’s statement — giving them a potential advantage in the race.

That candidate lost, and Low said he was assured by the auditor that none of the mistakes had an affect on the outcome of an election.

“I specifically asked that, and the answer clearly was ‘No,’” said Low. “The office addressed errors when they arose and took corrective action as soon as possible. But this was done on a case-by-case basis, and future errors would continue to occur because they did not document it.”

Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has closely watched elections with an eye toward improving the process, called the state’s findings “a fair critique.”

“The audit looked at a relatively narrow slice of the registrar’s operation,” he said, adding that it came after an internal study by the county auditor that looked at other aspects of the office. “But fundamentally it’s sound. Mistakes are going to be made, but when a mistake is made they should not only be fixed, but prevented from happening again if humanly possible.”

Low added that he believes it took the state audit to get the county moving in the right direction — all policies and procedures must be documented by October 2018, with departments that make more mistakes, such as mapping, prioritized.

“The county recognized there were significant problems and issues that were occurring, and as a result they conducted an audit themselves,” he said. “But it wasn’t by a third party. It’s my belief that it is because of an independent auditor outside the county, with expertise in engaging with other registrars, that they were able to come up with these corrective findings.”