[Image via wikimedia]
Yesterday, the Orange County, CA Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to move the county’s election system to a vote center model. The Orange County Register has more:
Orange County supervisors rejected a sweeping overhaul of the county’s voting system on Tuesday, June 13, despite a report from Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley saying more than $10 million would be saved in replacing antiquated voting machines.
Kelley’s proposal called for sending every county voter a mail ballot and replacing the approximately 1,000 precinct polls with 150 “vote centers.” The vote centers would open for 10 days before the election for those wanting to vote in person and those wanting to drop off ballots rather than mail them.
With people increasingly voting by mail – 61 percent of county voters are permanent vote-by-mail voters – the approach proposed by Kelley is growing in popularity. Colorado and Washington have adopted similar systems, and Sacramento County recently approved the change. Twelve other California counties are expected to consider the move within the next year.
But with a host of new election laws taking effect statewide, some Republican leaders say they’re worried about increased voter fraud and want to put the brakes on additional changes for the time being.
County supervisors, all Republicans, unanimously denied Kelley’s request without discussion.
The concern seems to be that the switch to vote centers – which the County was eligible to elect under the new Voter Choice Act – is too much change too fast and might lead to voter fraud. Proponents of the vote center model, including the Secretary of State, say those concerns are misguided:
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who made the motion to reject the proposal, later explained his reservations. “The key to me is to see how the other mandated systems work and then decide how to move forward,” he said, echoing sentiments expressed earlier this month by county GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker.
“I have real concerns about voter fraud,” Spitzer said.
There are two big state-mandated changes for 2018. For the first time, citizens will be able to register to vote on Election Day and there will no longer be restrictions on who can gather and deliver mail ballots. In the past, only relatives could drop off someone else’s mail ballot in person.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he was “surprised … shocked and deeply disappointed” by Orange County’s decision.
“Supervisor Spitzer sounds like (President) Donald Trump in citing voter fraud,” said Padilla, a Democrat. “Study after study, report after report, investigation after investigation show there’s virtually no voter fraud. He ought to be ashamed. This model for holding elections has been proven to work. Turnout goes up and cost goes down.”
Kelley has said the vote-center approach would provide greater safeguards against fraud. A key reason is each center would have a real-time, statewide voter database that would show if a prospective voter has registered or voted elsewhere. Voters registering or casting a ballot for the first time in the state are required to show identification, although others are not.
Rejecting vote centers could also cost the County tens of millions of dollars in equipment costs:
Buying [new voting] equipment for 1,000 precincts polls is probably not cost effective, Kelley has said.
Under the vote-center system, county voters could have cast a live ballot – or dropped off their mail ballot – at any of the county’s vote centers or at one of 93 secure drop boxes that would open a month before Election Day.
Kelley’s report to supervisors says the current system, put in place in 2003, had a 10-year life expectancy. Hardware is “increasingly failing,” the report says, needing more maintenance and software is outdated. Additionally, some replacement parts are no longer available.
Supervisors directed Kelley to return with a proposal to replace machines for the current 1,000 polling places. That could cost as much as $40 million, while new equipment for the vote-center approach would have topped out at $14 million, according to Kelley’s report.
Spitzer didn’t rule out supporting the vote-center model once mandated changes have been put in place and their consequences known. He said he’s not sure there’s a need to replace the aging machines in time for the 2018 elections.
“I’m not convinced we can’t continue to use our existing system,” he said.
The result is especially surprising because Neal Kelley is widely regarded on both sides of the aisle as a leader in the election field both in California and nationwide – but, true to form, he has agreed to abide by the decision:
Kelley offered only a brief comment after supervisors’ vote: “I respect the board’s decision and we’re prepared to move forward as directed.”
Kelley, former head of both the state and national elections officials organizations, has been widely acknowledged for the innovations and efficiencies he’s introduced to his office. He also helped draft the language of the state law allowing counties to establish vote centers.
This decision is yet another reminder that careful planning and ample evidence aren’t always enough to convince lawmakers to make election policy changes. It’s a setback for the vote center idea, but I’d be surprised if Orange County doesn’t get there eventually. I’d also be surprised if county policymakers don’t end up regretting not switching sooner.