Voters in San Mateo County who experienced, in some cases, hours-long waits to cast their ballots this past November should have a better time this November and in the 2020 presidential election if the county grants requests for new equipment and staff for the elections office.
At least that is the prediction of the head county election official, who blamed the November experience on a combination of old technology and the 2016 Voter's Choice Act, designed to expand access to voting, but which also makes polling places a kind of one-stop-shop for unregistered voters.
Prior to the November 2018 election, San Mateo County has had about 205 polling places during a major election, compared with about 40 voting centers now.
Under the new system, registered voters receive vote-by-mail ballots they can mark and mail in or drop off at a vote center on Election Day, or they can choose to vote using a voting machine.
San Mateo is one of five California counties, along with Madera, Napa, Nevada and Sacramento, to embrace the all-mail-ballot concept under the Voter's Choice Act, according to Jim Irizarry, the San Mateo County's chief elections officer.
Unregistered voters can register on the spot and vote, with their proof of residence and other data verified later, whereas in the past everyone had to register at least 15 days before the election.
In order to make all this happen, the elections department has requested updated optical scanners, machines that mechanically extract ballots from the envelopes in which they are mailed, and voting machines that print out paper ballots that can be counted by hand for a reliable tally, Irizarry said.
The county website will show the backup at each center so that residents can choose the one with the shortest lines.
Irizarry has also asked the county Board of Supervisors to add five new positions to the department. The board included the elections department's requests as part of the county's recommended 2019-21 fiscal year budget, which it approved at its June 19 meeting. Supervisors will adopt the final budget in September after considering any proposed revisions.
The long lines at the centers in November were the result of the high volume of ballots cast, more than 400,000, and the 12-year-old equipment that scans ballots three to four times slower than the new machines the elections department wants to order.
In November, the county was breaking in a new system with old equipment. An expanded number of unregistered or provisional voters, who take much more time to process, was a factor.
"A couple of years ago we had 30 or 40 provisional voters; now we have thousands," Irizarry said.
Going forward, the elections department is trying to make the system fail-safe, assuring that if any part goes down there's a backup
Following Election Day, the county has 30 days to certify the election. It takes a sampling of 1% of the ballots from each precinct to verify the margins.
"You don't want to speed through it, but you do it in a manner that you do everything properly and efficiently," Irizarry said.
There is another election coming up in November where the county is expecting about 100,000 voters.
But the real test of the new system will come in the November 2020 presidential election, where there could be in excess of 400,000 voters casting ballots countywide, Irizarry said.
Napa County, one of the other four counties statewide to use the new system in November, reported that things went smoothly except for lineups at two voter centers when the polls opened at 8 a.m., according to Registrar of Voters John Tuteur.
The county plans to open another vote center to spread out the number of provisional voters with another ballot drop-off box, he said.
"We believe the Voter's Choice Act plus conditional voter registration in the 14 days prior to and including Election Day will eventually increase voter participation and the number of eligible citizens who register to vote," Tuteur said.