Secretary talks election to local Dems

Predictions of widespread delays in the results of the Feb. 5 presidential primary due to a shift to paper ballots in nearly two dozen counties failed to materialize, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen told a crowd of several hundred people at the Lamorinda Democratic Club this week.

“In 57 of 58 counties, the election results came in roughly at the same time as they had in previous elections,” Bowen said.

In front of a visibly supportive crowd at the Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek Thursday night, the secretary delivered a lively and humorous speech on a broad range of election topics including the presidential primary, unprecedented turnout, voting machine security and ways to attract pollworkers.

California operates an almost incomprehensibly large voting system with 23,000 polling places and more than 100,000 pollworkers engaged on Election Day.

Californians cast a record number of ballots in the presidential election, some 8.3 million and counting. It also saw an unusually high number of mail-in ballots dropped off at the polls as voters held onto their ballots to see what would happen in the closely contested presidential contests.

Voters also cast a huge number of “provisional ballots,” or ballots cast on Election Day by people who are probably not registered to vote but showed up at the polls in the heat of the campaign. Every one of the estimated 600,000 mail-in and provisional ballots must be investigated to determine if the voter is eligible and has not already voted by mail.

Bowen also outlined fixes to problems of the past election such as lack of a notification system in the event of a court order that extends poll hours.

The issue surfaced in Alameda County on Election Day after more than a dozen polls ran out of ballots and proponents sought a judge’s order to keep the polls open. A judge later determined that an order was unnecessary because the county, under existing law, could hold the polls open without an order for anyone waiting in line to vote.

If a judge orders hold polls held open anywhere in California, under state law, the state cannot release election results until all polls close.

But there is no system under which the Secretary of State is told when such an order has been issued, Bowen said.

“That won’t happen again,” Bowen said.

Much of Bowen’s talk centered around her decision last year to decertify electronic voting machines in 21 counties after conducting a “top to bottom” review of California’s voting systems.

County registrars criticized the move, saying a rapid switch could delay the outcome of Super Tuesday results for days or longer and form an embarrassing cloud over the state’s voting systems.

But this crowd got on its feet and loudly applauded Bowen for tackling what has become a national preoccupation over the integrity of its voting equipment.

“I was prepared to defend my decision … But I figured that if we were late, people would gripe for a few days,” Bowen said. “But if we were wrong, people would never forgive us.”

Bowen also made several references, although not by name, to Contra Costa Registrar of Voters Steve Weir.

As president of the state’s registrars’ association Weir has been one of Bowen’s most vocal critics although he sat quietly in the audience during her speech.

Weir has said the secretary failed to adequately involve the registrars in the equipment reviews and said the security study was conducted outside the registrars’ customary precautions and protocols.

But Bowen said vendors’ proprietary rights precluded the registrars’ presence during the meat of the analysis.

And voting machine hackers could come from inside election offices where workers could disable or work around security measures, she said.

In other comments, Bowen:

— Supported the use of open source, or non-proprietary, software on voting machines, which would permit election officials to change hardware without buying new software.

— Announced plans to conduct an analysis of the Feb. 5 election results in order to evaluate what went wrong.

— Opposed any move to make the Secretary of State a nonpartisan post. It is incumbent upon her to administer her duties in a nonpartisan fashion, she said, but voters deserve to know the political philosophy of the secretary of state.

— Discussed a pending analysis of the numbers of voters who do not have a photo identification. Some groups want to mandate a photo identification as a tool to thwart voter fraud but Bowen said she doesn’t want to disenfranchise citizens who don’t drive a car or possess photo identification.

— Doesn’t believe California will move to an all-mail voter system anytime soon, largely because election offices have a small, 15-day window between the registration deadline and Election Day in order to mail the ballots. And the state should give voters options, she said.

— Doesn’t view weekend voting as practical because of protracted security concerns for the tens of thousands of ballots in the thousands of polling places around the state.

— Called for corporations to routinely provide pollworkers on Election Day.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen