Marin County, Calif., to Update Voting Tech, Centralize Polling

The county will spend more than $800,000 to purchase the new voting system from Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems. Officials say the switch to centralized vote counting will cut the cost of the new system by half.

by Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal / June 6, 2019

(TNS) — Marin County will spend $810,198 to purchase a new voting system and plans to replace traditional neighborhood polling places with fewer, more centrally located “voting centers” by 2022.

Marin supervisors voted on Tuesday to authorize the contract with Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems.

“Our current system is 20 years old; the hardware can no longer be maintained,” Registrar of Voters Lynda Roberts told Marin County Supervisors prior to the vote.

“That includes our central counting equipment where we count the vote-by-mail ballots and our servers that have the operating system on them,” Roberts said.

The secretary of state recently decertified all voting systems statewide not tested and certified to new standards. That included Marin’s system.

Roberts said the system that the county is buying will allow it the flexibility to move to a “vote center” model by 2022.

“The goal of the department has been to look at vote centers for 2022,” Roberts told supervisors.

Ballots cast at the county’s 90 polling places are counted there by AccuVote precinct scanners. The results are transferred to the elections department office via memory cards.

Mail ballots are counted at the elections office using the AccuVote scanners.

“Currently over 75 percent of our voters vote by mail and these ballots are counted centrally in the department,” Roberts said Tuesday.

Roberts said the decision to switch to centralized vote counting cut the cost of the new system by half, since it eliminated the need to buy new counting equipment for each polling place.

Marin County will begin counting all ballots at the elections department office at the Civic Center as soon as it acquires the new system. However, it won’t replace the polling places with voting centers until 2022.

SB 450, the California Voters Choice Act, signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, allows all counties beginning Jan. 1, 2020, to replace polling places with vote centers and to send a vote-by-mail ballot to each registered voter.

Under the vote center model, Marin’s polling places will be replaced by a fewer number of vote centers. The centers will function as temporary elections departments providing all the voter services available in a permanent elections department, including registration, voting, ballot issuing and ballot drop-off.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Damon Connolly quizzed Roberts on why she decided to wait until 2022 to move to the voter center model since the Board of Supervisors has indicated it would like to see the transition take place.

Roberts said a decision was made to take a phased approach because of the extensive planning and education that will be required. She also cited the extremely high voter turnout expected in the March 2020 primary election and November 2020 presidential election.

Steve Silberstein, a member of the Election Advisory Committee, had previously expressed concern that the county might purchase more voter marking devices than it would need when it moves to the new voter center model.

The contract approved Tuesday includes the 120 marking devices necessary to operate 90 polling places for the next two to three years. When the county switches to a voting center model, those polling places could be replaced by fewer than 20 voting centers, reducing the need for marking devices significantly.

Silberstein said Wednesday, however, that he is satisfied with the contract because it will allow the county to exchange up to 40 marking devices for a credit of up to $100,000 toward the purchase of ballot printers that will be required at the voting centers. The printers will cost about $250,000.

SB 450 requires that some number of vote centers be open on Election Day and the 10 days prior to Election Day. The number of vote centers required will be based on the number of registered voters and would increase in the final four days prior to Election Day.

“As it gets closer to election day, it’s one vote center for every 10,000 registered voters,” Roberts said. “Right now we have over 162,000 registered voters so that would put us in the 17 vote center range, at a minimum.”

SB 450 allowed Sacramento and four other California counties to make the voter center switch in 2018 as a pilot project. Roberts said she wants to see how these counties fare in the 2020 presidential election to determine if Marin County can get by with a minimum number of voting centers.

Connolly also asked Roberts what effect the new voting system will have on the speed with which votes are counted.

“I think the perception was it did take a long time to certify the election,” Connolly said, regarding the Nov. 6, 2018, midterm election.

Marin’s final vote count for that election was posted on Nov. 30, 24 days after Election Day.

Roberts said that while the new equipment will make it possible to count ballots faster, there are limitations to how much quicker a final count can be certified.

She noted that a new state law requires election officials to accept vote-by-mail ballots that arrive up to three days after an election.

In addition, she said signatures on these and other vote-by-mail ballots must be verified manually, and if a ballot lacks a signature or has a signature that doesn’t match, voters must be given an opportunity to correct the error.

Supervisor Kate Sears said, “I really want to acknowledge the careful thought and analysis that has gone into this project.”

©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.