Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

California scores low on quality, efficiency of elections

California ranks low in a new study of election efficiency, but Southern California counties are doing their part in making improvements.
California ranks low in a new study of election efficiency, but Southern California counties are doing their part in making improvements.

A new report that assesses the quality and efficiency of elections nationwide gives California a low grade in comparison with other states.

Californians who sign up to vote by mail too often fail to return their ballots, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Election Performance Index. The report notes that many California voters are made to cast provisional ballots when they arrive at the wrong polling places or encounter registration glitches. Many of those provisional ballots don't ever get counted, the study said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates changes in election systems, has issued reports critical of voting systems in the United States, calling them inaccurate, costly and inefficient. This latest update, issued Tuesday, adds analysis from the 2012 election to data collected from elections in 2008 and 2010.

California scored in the bottom quarter of states overall. It was the state with the highest percentage of mail-in ballots that are issued but not returned to the registrar — about 29 percent.

Some 46 percent of mail-in ballots sent to military and overseas voters for California elections were not returned to registrars.

"Vote first, count first"

These issues are resonating with counties in Southern California. Riverside County has attempted to reduce the percentage of unreturned vote-by-mail ballots with its "Vote first, count first" public education campaign, said Rebecca Spencer, interim registrar. She said voters who mail or hand-deliver their vote-by-mail ballots well in advance of Election Day get their ballots counted first.

The Pew study said eight percent of all ballots cast by California voters were provisional ballots, up from almost six percent in the 2008 election. Provisional ballots are what a voter uses when they arrive at a polling place and their name is not on the voter roll, or some other discrepancy crops up. Those provisional ballots are kept separate and are counted last, after an extra review is done to determine the voter is eligible and is not casting a duplicate ballot.

San Bernardino County had one of the highest rates of provisional ballots cast, said Registrar Mike Scarpello. The 2010 redistricting changed precinct lines and polling places, he said, causing some confusion. Some campaigns and candidates tell people to vote at any polling place, he said. Also, many permanent vote-by-mail users decide to show up at polling places where their names were no longer on the voter roll. They too, are issued provisional ballots.

San Bernardino County lowered its percentage of provisional votes in 2008 by four percent in the 2012 election after taking steps to train people to appear only at their assigned polling place. The county also mailed out voter guides and vote-by-mail ballots closer to the election to increase the odds those materials were at hand when it was time to vote. The county added an online polling place finder and quadrupled the number of people answering the registrar's phones on election day, to make sure people could find their assigned precinct, Scarpello said.

Some provisional ballots not counted

The Pew study said that 1.4 percent of all ballots cast in California elections were provisional ballots that were not counted because they were rejected.

An additional criticism in the Pew study is that California has no statewide centralized voter information tool. In California, voters must check with their county to determine their registration status. Los Angeles County, Orange and Riverside counties have an online registration tool and San Bernardino County is building one that might be ready in time for the June 3 election, officials said.

California got high marks because its voters spent the least amount of time waiting in line to vote, less than six minutes statewide, the study said. But that could also reflect low turnouts. The typical wait in Florida was 45 minutes, the nation's longest wait.

Los Angeles County's Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan has been working on a complete overhaul of its voting technology with the goal of replacing decades-old punch cards with digital tablets. The thinking is that a digital system can better accommodate more languages, more local races and ballot measures, and help voters who have difficulty reading or using a voting machine.

Logan said the new voting system is expected to reduce the number of provisional ballots and the labor associated with them. That's because any voter in the county will be able to vote at any polling place. Once they identify themselves to the system, the proper ballot for their precinct will appear, Logan said.