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Grand Jury Suggests Election Changes in Merced County, Calif.

Observations of last year’s election processes uncovered concerns about ballot privacy, emergency preparedness and inadequate signage, according to a recent Merced County Civil Grand Jury report.

by Abbie Lauten-Scrivner, Merced Sun-Star / August 20, 2020
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(TNS) — Merced County’s Elections Department has several snags to work out in advance of the Nov. 3 general election, according to a report released this week by the Merced County Civil Grand Jury.

Grand jury observation during the special Merced Irrigation District election on Nov. 5 and the primary election on March 3 concluded a mixed analysis of local election practices.

On those dates issues arose with ballot privacy, emergency preparedness and inadequate signage, according to the grand jury.

The concerns prompted the grand jury to request that before the upcoming Nov. 3 election, county officials conduct training for poll operations to prepare for emergency situations.

The grand jury also recommended that poll workers get training for handling ballots securely, away from public eyes.

“I appreciate them looking at the operation,” said Merced County Registrar of Voters Barbara Levey of the grand jury report. “I was disappointed when I saw this, because we didn’t have the opportunity to give input before they published,” she added.

Issues raised in the report

The issues stem from March’s election, when ballots were observed being removed from the privacy folder before being fed into machines by a poll worker, thus exposing ballots to public view.

Privacy concerns were likely spurred by voters being hesitant to remove their own ballot from its privacy sleeve and place it in the precinct tabulator machine themselves, Levey said. Such individuals may have asked a worker to do so, which would briefly display the individual’s ballot to the public, she said.

Some signage flaws and confusion over emergency protocols were also evident during both March 2020 and November 2019 elections, according to the report.

“When questioned about procedures to ensure vote integrity in an emergency, poll workers provided a variety of answers regarding training and procedures,” the report said. “Some workers indicated they had received some training, while others specified that they had not.”

Several poll workers said they were told to take voting materials with them during an emergency only if it was safe to do so. If the materials had to be left behind for safety purposes, the workers were instructed to call the warehouse for instructions, the report said.

“I do understand where the grand jury, they kind of hit on this one,” Levey said of emergency preparedness.

Levey noted that during the November 2019 election, a fire alarm went off at a polling site at an assisted living facility and mandated evacuation of the entire building. The grand jury’s concerns likely stemmed from that incident, she said.

Levey said that while an immense amount of training — including emergency protocols — is provided to poll workers, actually responding during an emergency is difficult. The sheer amount of information about how to run equipment, types of ballots, voting eligibility and more can also contribute to certain details getting lost, she said.

The bottom line, Levey said, is that poll worker’s safety comes first during an emergency. Protecting voting materials is encouraged if possible, but is not the priority, she said.

The concerns will be addressed during the upcoming election by providing emergency instruction that is location-specific for workers, in addition to increased training, Levey said.

Report also had positives

Despite the criticism, the grand jury also highlighted positives about how elections staff conducted business.

On the plus side, for example, poll workers were found to be competent and helpful with the voting process, and accessibility at most voting locations was deemed reasonable.

Also, the grand jury found that new technology transitioned well into local election procedures and that poll workers responded well to voter needs, which Levey said she appreciated.

Levey noted that any ballot privacy issues like those with the precinct tabulators will not be an issue come November, on account of the election taking place by mail per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide order due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The order and subsequent legislation mandates that each registered voter be mailed a ballot.

Ballot drop boxes will be open throughout the county beginning Oct. 5 until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Drop box locations list will be included with the county voter information guide.

Voters should drop ballots in the mail no later than Oct. 27 to reach the elections office on time. Levey said she has received assurance from the U.S. Postal Service that it will be a sufficient partner in ensuring the election’s integrity.

Still, some Merced County residents are not pleased with voting by mail.

“My office has fielded quite a few complaints about it,” Levey said, noting that many are unaware of the voting format being a statewide order. “We need to do it because of COVID, because of safety.”

Levey said that during past elections, up to 75% of Merced County voters submitted their ballot through the mail, meaning the change will not significantly affect a majority of registered voters.

More information about the Nov. 3, 2020 general election can be found on the Merced County Elections Department website.

©2020 the Merced Sun-Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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