On June 7, California voters and poll workers faced a number of challenges ranging from confusion over voter registration and vote-by-mail ballots, understaffed polling places, and outdated machinery. Voters, activists, election officials and KPCC senior politics reporter Mary Plummer gathered in the Crawford Family Forum on July 13 to discuss the issues that complicated the primary election and solutions that might be implemented in time for November’s general election.
The secretary of state voter hotline received more than 500 complaints on Election Day, and panelists explored the logistical, historical and legal contexts of these problems, many of which intersected with the issue of poll worker training and retention. Audience members shared concerns, offered solutions, and posed questions that underscored the urgency – and difficulty – of improving the systems involved in casting and counting ballots.
“Primary Day was a frantic, friggin’ mess,” John Pierce, a primary day poll worker, said. The four panelists gathered in the Crawford Family Forum couldn’t have agreed more. From the voter’s perspective, problems began in advance of Election Day, with registration and vote-by-mail ballots. Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, said the primary process complicated registration this time around. “Voting materials for regular voters go out 30 days before, but you have up to 15 days before to change your party preference so you have the counties scrambling to get all those updates into their system.” Discrepancies between multiple rosters can prompt a poll worker to issue a provisional ballot. Many voters have expressed doubts about the validity of provisional ballots; Dean Logan, Los Angeles County registrar-county clerk, said 87 percent of provisional ballots in this election were ultimately counted. “But that doesn’t address the experience of the voter,” he said.
Poll workers were high on the list of other factors that affected voter experience: more than 200 of the 500 complaints submitted to the secretary of state on Election Day involved poll workers. The panelists – and the many poll workers in the audience – agreed that poll worker training was insufficient, especially given how organizationally and technologically complex voting has become in the last 50 years. “What the system asks of the poll workers is not reasonable,” said Logan. Neal Kelley, the Orange County registrar, said, “There are 20,000 laws on the books for elections alone. We’re training poll workers in three hours for a very complex process. I don’t think we should be sending out volunteers with this infrastructure in place and essentially saying, ‘Good luck!’” Logan said the complexity of the laws limited how quickly and aggressively election officials could make changes to the system.
Recruitment, training and retention of poll workers is no trivial matter in a county that requires 25,000 volunteers on Election Day, Logan and Alexander said. There’s no state law requiring poll worker training, Alexander said, adding that such training costs money and is one of the first items on the chopping block when state budgets tighten. Due to high rates of cancellation and no-shows, the county needs to be able to recruit poll workers on-site, a tradition that predates technologically and logistically complicated voting systems. Poll workers are paid only a small amount to serve – $120 in L.A. County and $130 in Orange County. In addition, many want to serve in their home districts and are reluctant to travel to distant or less desirable areas.
What’s more, poll workers and voters have to deal with outdated machinery that varies from county to county. “We have 58 counties and 58 different voting systems,” said Alexander. Maria de la Luz Garcia, Long Beach’s city clerk, was able to streamline voting in her municipality by staging a coordinated election, in which voters cast votes in statewide and local elections on the same day. But other panelists emphasized the limitations posed by discrepancies between ballot-counting systems. While Los Angeles County has modified a system in place since 1968, it is still in the process of fully modernizing a punch-ballot system that is easy for machines to count, but that makes it difficult for voters to verify their ballots visually.
Several counties have implemented or proposed specific strategies for addressing roadblocks to civic engagement. Garcia oversaw a pop-up polling party in Long Beach, and she noted that voter turnout had been strong at the site near the neighborhood celebration. Kelley described SB450, a bill that would issue all voters mail-in ballots and give them the opportunity to mail them in or to drop them at one of several centralized “voting centers” during a 10-day window. The expanded timeframe would allow voters to solve problems having to do with registration and party affiliation rather than cast a provisional ballot, he said.
To close out the discussion, panelists each offered solutions that may be implemented before November’s election:
Dean Logan: poll worker training and recruitment, expanding the availability of will-call ballot ordering, voter outreach and education, strengthening the engagement of new voters
Kim Alexander: statewide online voter registration database (VoteCal) in which voters can verify party, address, vote-by-mail status, etc., before visiting their polling place on Election Day
Maria de la Luz Garcia: education and outreach, particularly for students and young voters
Neal Kelly: early voting opportunities at vote centers 10 days before Election Day in Orange County