• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— 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."

Despite all the new voting innovations that are on the way, the current system still requires old-fashioned ballot-readers.

Charlie Wallace, the man who operates, maintains, and runs the ballot-reading equipment, opens the door behind the office, revealing an enormous warehouse. In one area are several ballot-readers covered with vinyl tarps. The rest of the space is reserved for the ballots that will arrive on election day. Wallace says that the technology is fairly old, but the readers have been upgraded. "These readers are about 20 years old. They used to read program decks a long time ago to program mainframe computers, and they were adapted back in the early '80s to read ballots. They read 1000 ballots a minute, which is a lot faster than any other technology that reads a paper-type ballot. Most of the other technologies read between 60 to 400 ballots per minute. They use a blower mechanism to fan out the cards, and the ballots come in from an input hopper with about 650 ballots on the input side." He turns on the machine, which makes an industrial hum.

Placing a stack of cards in the input side, they are quickly shuffled through to the other side. "They are very fast and very accurate. The only problems with these are chads: if people don't punch the hole out, then it causes some problems with accuracy. But if all of the procedures are followed and the hole is punched out, then these things read at almost 100 percent accuracy rate. Each one of these machines runs between $4500 and $6000, depending on whether you can find it used or new. What we've got here is a couple of servers, eight or ten work stations, probably a total of less than $40,000 worth of actual hardware to count the ballots. The devices that are used for punch ballots at the polling places are worth a total of about $23 million. There's also the computer software, which is fairly expensive, because it does a variety of things besides counting the ballots. It has to lay out the ballots for the candidates in the right order, with the contests in the right order on the devices. It has to have the ability to edit, change, add records -- so it's fairly comprehensive."

Another comprehensive task required of the counters is absentee ballots. "It also has to tabulate at the end, and it has to manage a paper absentee ballot system, or it has to handle these." He points to a stack of absentee punch ballots. "Except these guys won't have holes on them anymore. They'll have marks where the punches are. They call it an optical ballot. These readers are modified to read those. Half a million pieces of paper is a whole lot of paper."

The new absentee ballots Wallace is talking about will be different from the punch-ballots voters are used to mailing in. They will be paper mark-in ballots with the names of the candidate or initiative clearly printed on the same paper, making mail-in chads obsolete. "I don't think that chads were the issue for the absentee change. The problem was that you can't just look at your ballot and tell whether you voted for a particular race or measure. It's all numbers. You've got to look back at your sample ballot. That's probably more the issue. The new paper- ballot systems are becoming a lot more sophisticated, and you can count them faster. They will just be for absentee, which isn't a small number. In a general presidential election, where we have our biggest turnout, we have about a million voters or more. Since a third of San Diego County voters vote by mail, we have close to 350,000 voters voting by mail. I think San Diego is a little bit on the higher side for absentee voting -- I've heard it's 25 percent for the rest of the state."

Although most voters probably don't remember, McPherson says that San Diego County had its own vote-counting crisis in the 2000 election. "There was an Otay Water Board election. While all this was happening in Florida, a race in the division for the water board was neck and neck. We were adding in absentee and provisional ballots after election day. When it came down to certification, it was a tie. So what do you do if it's a tie? You flip a coin! The district did it at their offices, and I went down there for it. It was the first coin toss that I had ever seen. They flipped a coin, and one of the candidates won the toss, so then the other candidate immediately filed for a recount. On our system, if it's one or two or three votes different, that's probably the only time you would ever really want a recount, because if the results aren't turned around, you [the candidate] have to pay for it yourself. If the results aren't overturned, the candidate pays all the costs. If they are overturned, we pay the costs. There were only 8000 ballots cast for this particular election, so it wasn't huge, but if it were a countywide recount, it would take many days with many people doing it and could be pretty darned expensive. Anyway, they did the recount and, at the end, the results were identical. Unchanged. I think that speaks very well for the system. Having followed what happened in Florida, it was very timely for us, because it was kind of a validation for any questions about the accuracy of our system."

Return to City Lights main page.

Send this story to a friend

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader