Contra Costa elections chief predicts slow returns

The days of knowing the outcome of the election on Election Day are over, Contra Costa County’s election chief Steve Weir told a group of reporters, editors and editorial page writers from the Contra Costa Times this morning.

He blames what he calls a “paranoid” environment promulgated by Secretary of State Debra Bowen and excessive, state-imposed restrictions that slow down the work of his office with no discernible benefits.

“I think we’re going in the wrong direction, in part, because of the secretary’s near-paranoia and the distrustful environment around voting equipment,” said Weir, who has been a vocal critical of Bowen’s decisions to curtail the use of some brands of voting equipment.

Weir specifically cited a prohibition on the simultaneous downloading of voting results from the precincts while pushing out updates on the vote tallies. Instead, election workers must stop all counting while the department generates a report, a process that can take 15 to 20 minutes.

The restriction is the result of fear following the voting scandals in Florida and Ohio, Weir said, although he added that no evidence exists of corruption in California voting equipment.

Weir had hoped to produce result updates on the department’s web site on election night every half-hour after the polls close but with the restriction, he says his election workers would fall further and further behind.

In Weir’s other election news:

— Your polling place will likely stay the same for all three elections in 2008, although circumstances on the ground could impact some voters such as road construction or the loss of availability of a home or other building due to fire or sale. Check the Contra Costa Election Division website starting Dec. 7 to look up your polling place.

— The Secretary of State has not yet certified the county’s upgraded voting equipment for the disabled. That means that workers must use the older version, which has had problems. Weir said he will have strike teams on call with replacement machines in the event of a breakdown.

— The county faces a serious shortage of pollworkers for the June 2008 election, largely due to disinterest in a primary that no longer includes a vote for the presidential nominees. That election was moved to Feb. 5. Prospective workers are signing up for February and November, but not June.

“Voter turnout in June is going to be terrible,” Weir said. “When the public isn’t excited about the election, pollworkers aren’t excited about the election.”

Of course, local interest in June could be higher than elsewhere in the state due to several potentially contested races such as Contra Costa County supervisor, and state Senate and Assembly.

— Don’t be surprised if you see presidential campaign literature mixed with those holiday catalogues in your mailbox. In California, absentee voting for the February primary starts Jan. 7. Contra Costa will mail out about 200,000 absentee ballots and Weir expects half of those ballots will be mailed back to this office in the first three weeks, while the others will pour in during the final week.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen