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— Published on September 12, 2002

Voting Made Simple

By Robert Kumpel

San Diego voters are not likely to see any chad controversies in upcoming elections as November's election will be the last election in which San Diego voters will have punch-card ballots.

Sally McPherson has been San Diego County's Registrar of Voters since December 2001. She has worked for the county nearly 30 years, 7 of those in the registrar's office, and she says the punch-card system has been effective for the past 20-plus years. "It's possible that we could have to use the punch ballots if there's a special election, but November should be the last time, because that system has been decertified in the state of California. The two systems, Votomatic and Pollstar, were used in nine counties in the state but were decertified by the Secretary of State, and there was also a lawsuit filed after the 2000 election. The Secretary of State targeted the year 2006, then changed it to 2005. Then, right before the March election, the judge ruled that we needed to move to a new system by March 2004."

The new system will be electronic and will count the votes as they are cast, which brings in much earlier returns than San Diegans are used to.

"The absentee ballots are coming in before election day, so those we will have to be prepared and ready to count on election night. The ones that come in to the polls on election day or arrive in the mail on election day will be counted in the days that follow. But it will not hold up election results. In fact, on election night, the results should be a lot faster than what we see now. They'll basically bring in a CD from the polls -- it's actually a little 'smart card.' " McPherson pauses. "I'm wondering what Election Central downtown will be like when the results come in so quickly."

The new devices used by those voting in booths will be a departure from the punch-card system San Diegans are accustomed to, although the final purchase has not yet been made. "I can tell you that it will be an electronic screen, similar to an ATM screen," McPherson explains. "Most of them are touch-screen, although one system is certified that uses a rotary dial. But it's similar to an ATM screen. They're not as big as a computer monitor, they're generally flat -- probably about the size of a small portable TV screen. I think it will better serve voters with special needs. Any system that we purchase will have to have an audio component for the visually impaired. I think it's pretty exciting." McPherson estimates that the entire new system (including absentee technology) will cost about $25 million. "The state's paying a three-to-one match on that; so they're paying $3 for every $1 the county pays."

McPherson sees little chance of San Diego's punch-card ballot system causing a situation similar to the November 2000 election crisis in Florida. "This system has worked for almost 25 years and very well. We think it was pretty darned accurate. Not just in San Diego County, but in California as a whole. Our elections are run much differently than Florida; the rules are much different, for one thing. We would never have had a recount happen the way theirs did. What happens here is, we conduct the election. We have add-on counts, because there are still ballots coming in. We don't certify an election until 28 days following the election. There is a complete audit that is done -- a 1 percent manual audit to test the machine counts for accuracy -- before we actually issue the results officially. In the days that follow, we are issuing unofficial results. So if a race gets right down to the wire, it could be almost a month later that we actually know the results. But then, at that point in time, you have 5 days to request a recount. Only then would you be able to do that. In Florida, it was happening right away, and they were still adding ballots in, and because of that, it gave the appearance of confusion. In California, the Secretary of State would not be certifying the state's results until all the counties had completed their audits and the results were in."

With the expanding population of San Diego County, what about new areas like EastLake and Carmel Mountain Ranch? McPherson says there is no need to worry. "We have a whole precincting section, where we develop our precincts for the polls. We don't care so much about population as we do about registered voters. The law says that if we have 1250 registered voters, then we need to have a polling place. For every election, we redraw some of the precincts, and some people have new polling places as a result. Plus, district boundaries changed recently, so we had a lot of work prior to our last election and getting ready for November. The County of San Diego changed boundaries for its supervisorial districts, congressional districts, assembly districts, and so forth. Every person that votes in a precinct has the same ballot. In the March election, we had 700 different versions of the sample ballot that had to be printed. There were 259 different ballot districts times eight, which was seven parties and nonpartisan."

An election will require between 1400 and 1600 polling places in the county, which, one way or another, are always provided. Businesses and public facilities are always sought out first, because they tend to be accessible for the disabled; they're more recognizable and have parking. Residences are always the second choice. For newer housing developments where younger families are predominant and most people work, the registrar will issue press releases to seek out poll workers. "There are some areas where we always have a little trouble seeking out poll workers until the last minute, but as long as I've been here, we've gotten every poll open and enough poll workers every time. And you don't have to live in the area where you are assigned to a polling place. Some people volunteer to go anyplace in the county. We've also sent our own staff at periods when people needed help getting the polls set up."

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