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California counties are pressing ahead with plans to upgrade voting equipment after a recent order from the Secretary of State decertifying older systems in advance of the 2020 election. The Mercury News has more:
With a year to go until the 2020 presidential primary, California counties are figuring out how to respond to a recent state order that says old voting machines that don’t meet security standards have to be replaced in time for the next election season.
For most counties in California, the Feb. 27 order from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla figures to mean more spending.
“While county officials have worked diligently to keep equipment up and running, our democracy faces increasingly sophisticated threats from nefarious actors, both foreign and domestic,” Padilla said in a news release. “The time is now for all California counties to modernize voting equipment.”
In Riverside County, the new rule figures to end an 11-year-old makeshift election system that relies on equipment no longer in production. The county’s Registrar of Voters, Rebecca Spencer, expects it will cost at least $19 million to replace that voting infrastructure, an investment that comes on top of $31 million spent on voting technologies over the past 20 years.
But because the new rule applies to equipment that must meet standards invoked just four years ago, most counties in Southern California – with the big exception of Los Angeles County – are facing a similar spending dilemma.
The 2016 election cycle brought renewed focus on election security following revelations of Russian efforts to influence the presidential race. A host of federal security agencies, from the FBI and the CIA to all four branches of the military, said that Russian hackers allegedly attempted to access voter databases throughout the United States, including California. In the past 18 months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted Russian intelligence officers who are accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Padilla’s order for new equipment applies to elections held after February 27, 2020, so smaller elections scheduled for this year won’t be affected.
On Monday, March 4, the Little Hoover Commission, an independent agency that studies and recommends improvements to state programs, sent Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature a letter asking for better security for voting equipment.
“In this era when foreign interference, human error, and machine malfunctions dominate headlines, it’s more important than ever to remember the adage that security is a process, not a product,” commission Chairman Pedro Nava said in a news release. “Though the state takes a number of important security measures, it must be more ambitious in making sure every Californian’s vote counts.”
Twenty of California’s 58 counties have bought voting systems that meet current standards, according to Padilla’s office. Padilla noted the state budget includes $134.3 million to help counties upgrade their elections infrastructure.
Some counties may address the issue by switching to a vote center model – though the Secretary says that’s not the major purpose of his order:
The order comes as more counties consider whether to switch from a system where voters cast ballots in scores of smaller, neighborhood precincts to a so-called “vote center” system, in which a smaller number of voting sites are open for several days leading up to an election, offering spots where voters can vote in person or drop off a mail-in ballot.
The vote center model also would make it easier to register to vote and to get help with completing ballots. The idea stems from a state law passed in 2016 and last year Sacramento, Nevada, San Mateo, Napa, and Madera counties starting using vote-center systems.
Last month, Orange County approved a plan to adopt a vote center system in time for elections next year. Among other things, the move figures to reduce the county’s spending on new voting equipment by an estimated $30 million.
Responding to emailed questions, Padilla said his order is not meant to push counties into accepting a vote-center system. “As California’s chief elections official, I have a fundamental responsibility to ensure the security of our elections and provide a smooth voting experience for our citizens,” he said.
He added counties “have ample time” to put voting systems in place by the 2020 primary that comply with state security standards.
For some counties, the push comes just in time as existing legacy systems stretch past their usefulness:
For Riverside County, home to about 1 million registered voters, the order adds urgency to a problem Spencer outlined in a December presentation to the Board of Supervisors.
The county’s system “was never intended to be used in the method, in the way, we are using it,” Spencer said in December. “We’ve been putting Band-aids on it and purchasing refurbished equipment. The equipment is legacy equipment. It’s no longer manufactured. We’ve worked with the vendor, with different consultants, to try to speed up the vote-counting system, but it’s basically at capacity where it’s at now.”
The county has had a complicated and costly history with election equipment. In 2000, the county spent $15 million on touch-screen voting machines. Three years later, those machines were decertified by then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley due to security concerns. The county spent another $15 million on machines that in 2007 were again decertified by Bowen due to security worries.
With six months to go until the February 2008 primary, county officials expanded a system envisioned to only count absentee ballots. That system has remained in use, and has been expanded to count all ballots – though that has lengthened the time needed to count votes since all paper ballots cast at polling places in a county the size of New Jersey must be physically delivered to the registrar’s headquarters in Riverside.
Spencer said an ad-hoc committee of county supervisors is looking at how to improve the county’s voting system and procedures.
San Bernardino County also is evaluating how it will be affected by Padilla’s order, said county spokesman David Wert.
“The county’s current system has performed well,” he said. “Operated by the registrar’s experienced, talented and dedicated staff, the system has consistently produced accurate and reliable election results.
“Our county has not experienced an inability to service the system or find replacement parts. But the county knows the system is becoming outdated and is in need of replacement,” Wert added. “That’s why the county has been working to develop a procurement process that will lead to the purchase and implementation of a new system.”
A new voting system in San Bernardino County is expected to cost more than $11.8 million, although a firm estimate isn’t yet available, Wert said, adding the registrar is currently processing a $5.9 million state grant contract to improve elections technology. The grant, which will be presented to the Board of Supervisors, will require a dollar-for-dollar match by the county.
Los Angeles County will not be affected by Padilla’s order, said Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the county Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. The county is implementing a new voting system called Voting Solutions for All People, which will go through state testing and certification ahead of the 2020 election cycle, Sanchez said.
Padilla’s order came right after Orange County supervisors approved the switch to the vote-center model. Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley estimated Orange County would achieve big cost savings simply because swapping out more than 1,000 precincts will mean less need for equipment.
Kelley said he expects to bring a recommendation and contract for a new voting system to supervisors by August. “Because of the timing it’s possible that we will have to use a portion of our old equipment for the March 2020 primary and we will be submitting a request for conditional use to the Secretary of State” by April 5, he said.
“I plan to have a new system fully implemented in time for the November 2020 election that conforms to the state requirements.”
Needless to say, this is a tall order for counties – both technologically and fiscally – to meet before the 2020 election. Hopefully the existence of some state funds will ease the burden; but one way or another counties are on the hook to replace their voting equipment before next year’s election. Stay tuned …