Sonoma County, Calif., to Replace Aging Voting System

The 35-year-old system will be used in the upcoming November election, but its replacement should be ready for smaller local elections in March 2019.

by J.D. Morris, The Press Democrat / August 27, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Sonoma County, Calif., is preparing to replace its aging voting system next year, a highly anticipated technological upgrade expected to make ballot counting faster and more efficient while still keeping the entire process secure from would-be hackers.

The new system will continue using paper ballots but will speed up a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, for example, making it easier for election staffers to send out mail-in ballots. It will also allow the county to start providing periodic updates on the vote count.

The county will rely on its current 35-year-old system for the upcoming Nov. 6 election. But officials will roll out the new technology for use in a smaller local election as early as March, following the Board of Supervisors’ vote last week to spend at least $2 million on the upgrade.

“We’ve been getting by for years with a system that was harder and harder to keep operational,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s vice chairman. “The old machines ... were being cannibalized because the parts were no longer available. Once you get to that point, you realize the clock is ticking.”

Amid public concern about the security of elections prompted by reports of Russian interference in 2016, among other threats, county leaders stressed their new system is protected from potential bad actors.

“The new system will absolutely produce paper ballots, so we’ll have the paper trail,” said Deva Marie Proto, the county’s clerk-recorder-assessor and registrar of voters-elect. “It is not connected to the internet. It’s in a secure room that very few people have access to. It’s video monitored. We have a lot of controls in place.”

Mark-A-Vote, the system Sonoma County has used since 1983, has numerous shortcomings that election officials are eager to put behind them.

Replacement parts are hard to come by, and the county knows of only one person who’s qualified to do the necessary maintenance work.

The system also doesn’t allow for daily or weekly updates on the vote count. County officials can’t simply add the ballots they received on Election Day to the mail-in ballots they tallied beforehand, so they have to count everything all over again.

All of that changes with the new technology the county is getting from Dominion Voting Systems.

“This is going to speed up doing final results, because we don’t have to go that extra step,” said Elizabeth Acosta, special projects director in the registrar of voters’ office. “We don’t have to go back and tally everything all over again.”

But Proto cautioned against expecting a much faster final count in Sonoma County, which has historically lagged behind many of its peers in processing ballots.

“We still have to do manual counts. We still have to wait for ballots to come in that were mailed; we still have to process the provisional ballots, and there’s specific timelines and reasons that those take a while,” Proto said. “So that part of it will not speed up. But the actual vote counting (and) the fact that we’ll be able to do periodic updates will absolutely make a difference.”

The vast majority of Sonoma County voters cast ballots by mail. In the June election, 82 percent of those who cast ballots did so by mail, and Acosta said around 72 percent of all registered voters in the county are signed up to receive their ballots that way.

©2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.