COLAB Corner: Unraveling the local election ballots

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Over the next several months, COLAB will provide a series of articles on issues its membership believes important to the economic viability of Imperial Valley.  We thank the Desert Review for its support and interest in publishing these articles.  Please note that our articles do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Desert Review, its owners or staff.  The opinions expressed are those of the COLAB board.

by Kay Day Pricola
Executive Director of COLAB

Recently, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) and other organizations had reasons to question the requested voter registration list for the upcoming Imperial Irrigation District’s (IID) Division 1 Special Election. Some addresses were not on the list, which should have been based on the boundaries of the newly formed IID division lines, and others were included that should not have been. The new boundary had yet to be fine-tuned, according to the Elections Department, and with the information provided by the various organizations, that has now occurred. Imperial County Elections’ Department Manager Debbie Porter assured the corrections were made.

During the discussion with Mrs. Porter, COLAB requested an explanation of the ballot process. We believe the public should have an understanding of the complexities of the process and how each of us can be better voters in that process.

First, there is only one ballot printed based on the declared candidates, at the Federal, State, and local level. Each ballot is customized based on the precinct election options. For example, in a national election, all ballots have the candidates for President/Vice President, as well as U.S. Senatorial candidates. Customized ballots are needed for national elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, for the State of California election, the Governor, and other statewide candidates are included on all ballots, and then the ballot is customized for the California Senatorial and Assembly candidates. For local elections, ballots are further customized by precinct to include city council candidates by city, school boards, and special districts. These ballots for Imperial County are printed outside the area, but the list by precinct is prepared by the Imperial County Elections Department.

The distribution of the ballot to the registered voters is done in one of five possible ways. First, the most traditional method is at the registered voter’s specific polling place. Here the voter’s name is on the registered voters’ list for that precinct. The voter provides his or her name and address, the voter registration roster is verified, and the voter signs the roster. Identification is not required in the State of California. The voter is provided a ballot for completion on site. That ballot is then processed in a machine that tabulates the votes and records them on a memory card, which is securely transported to the Elections Department at the close of the voting day. The paper ballots are electronically scanned and tallied as part of the voting machine processing and also retained and securely stored.

The second and now the most used method is a mail-in ballot with approximately 50% of the total cast ballots as mail-ins. This ballot, the same as available at the precinct polling place, is mailed to the registered voters 29 days prior to the election. In the last two elections, the primary in June 2016 and in the major election in November 2016, the mail-in ballots were distributed later than that due to two different reported issues with out-of-area printers. Registered voters can request a permanent mail-in ballot or a temporary mail-in ballot for this election only. In precincts with 250 or less registered voters, the mail-in ballot is used and the precinct does not have a polling site. Once the ballot is received, the registered voter now has the option to return the ballot by mail (postage required), drop it off in the Elections Department’s office in El Centro or on the day of the election at any polling site. If the ballot is received 10 or more days prior to the election, the Elections Department verifies the signature, but does not open the ballot. If the signature is declared valid, the ballot is securely stored for counting sometime between 10 days prior to the election and the election date. For those received within 10 days of the election, the signature is verified and the ballot is machine processed, which includes a tabulation of the votes and an electronic scan of the ballot. If the signature is not declared valid or the ballot is missing a signature, the Elections Department sends a letter to the registered voter to correct the issue directly with the Elections Department up to 8 days following the election. Those ballots are considered challenged until cured with a valid signature.

The third and most time consuming for the Elections Department is a provisional ballot. This occurs when an individual appears at a polling place, and his or her name is not on that precinct’s voter registration list. The individual may be in a different polling place or not be a registered voter. The individual is provided with a ballot for that precinct. The ballot is considered provisional until the registration status is determined. If a registered voter, the ballot is then counted using the machine in the Elections Department. If the individual is not a registered voter, the ballot is challenged and not counted. This most recent November 2016 election had a significant number of challenged ballots.

The fourth and newest method of casting a ballot is through a Conditional Voter Register (CVR) system. An individual may come to the Elections Department beginning 14 days prior to the election, register to vote and then that same day receive a ballot and vote. Those ballots, along with a copy of the newly issued voter registration card, are securely stored and processed along with the mail-in ballots starting 10 days prior to the election. The voter may use this CVR method to register and vote until the close of the polls for that election cycle.

The last ballot distribution process is an early voting method. This last year Imperial County used a mobile unit with the voting machines to encourage greater voter participation. It will not be used in this upcoming special election.  The other early voting method is on the weekend prior to the election where the Elections Department’s office in El Centro is open from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday for registered voters. If the registered voter chooses this method, the correct precinct ballot is provided.

The Elections Department has 30 days to certify the ballots. Those ballots used at the polling place are machine counted and electronically scanned as the voter enters the ballot in the machine reader. The mail-in ballots, once the signature is verified and accepted, are processed in the Elections Department machine reader. Once a provisional ballot is declared valid, it is also processed in the Elections Department machine reader. The CVR is processed the same way. And the early voting method is processed just as it is at polling place.

One other option available to those receiving mail-in ballots, you may drop off the ballot at any Elections Department’s office or polling place in the State of California prior to the election or on the day of the election. That county’s Elections Department has 8 days to mail the ballot to the correct county’s Elections Department. This new option effective January 1, 2017, means that the Elections Department cannot certify the election until at least 10 days after the election date.

In Imperial County, we have an election every year, and in the even years, a primary in June and the major election in November. The small staff is busy each year as a result.  We appreciate the explanation and certainly appreciate the attention to detail provided by the Elections Department to ensure that our votes are counted.