In the wake of the sudden announcement by the acting Alameda County Registrar of Voters to take herself out of the running for the permanent position, at least one local voting activist said it is an opportune time for the county to rethink its position on the purchase of electronic voting machines.
Alameda County has been seeking a permanent registrar since Brad Clark left the position last year.
Elaine Ginnold, an 18-year department veteran and acting registrar, had been considered the front-runner for the position, but this week she took herself out of the running, announcing that she was leaving May 12 to take the position of Registrar of Voters for Marin County.
While preparations appear to be set for the June 6 primary elections, Ginnold’s departure leaves uncertainty about the November general election.
Last March, the county Board of Supervisors narrowly approved going forward with negotiations with two companies—Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems—for the possible purchase of optical scanners and one to two electronic voting machines for each of the county’s 1,000 polling places.
In order for those voting machines to be in place in time for the November elections, the registrar of voters office had expected to make recommendations on a contract to supervisors on May 23, with supervisors’ final approval on May 30 and a signed contract by June 1.
But according to Voting Rights Task Force Chair Judy Bertelsen, who argued against purchase of the electronic scanning machines when the matter came before county supervisors last March, the supervisors should now put those purchases on hold until the permanent registrar is hired.
“It seems especially foolish to continue to move forward under these circumstances,” Betelsen said. “Elaine had great faith in Diebold, and was committed to making it work. She was the company’s main cheerleader, and the supervisors were allowing her to take the lead in setting up the new system. That’s not atypical for elected bodies. They don’t want to micromanage. They depend on the expertise of staff. But with Elaine soon to be gone, it’s an opportunity for the county to sever its relationship with Diebold and move forward. It’s a chance for us to take a new look at the question of where we should be going with our election system.”
County supervisors were in a planning meeting all day Thursday and unavailable for comment.
When the Diebold-Sequoia contract negotiation issue came before county supervisors last March, Ginnold had argued that under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a failure to purchase a permanent voting system before the beginning of 2007 might severely limit the type of system the county could purchase in the future. Voting activists are expected to dispute that contention, and it should be a major issue at the next supervisors meeting.
In June, the county will be conducting what they called a “blended system” election, with paper balloting at the precincts. The ballots will be counted by a small number of electronic scanners at a central election headquarters in downtown Oakland. The county already owns those scanners.
Under HAVA, voting precincts must provide a way for disabled voters to cast ballots without intervention by individual assistance. Alameda County plans to meet the HAVA requirements in June by borrowing electronic touchscreen voting machines from another county, possibly San Diego.
In November, those electronic touchscreen screens will not be available from San Diego County, and purchase of permanent machines to satisfy the HAVA disabled-voter requirements were part of the proposed contract scheduled to go before supervisors late this month.
In addition, Ginnold had proposed purchasing individual electronic ballot scanning devices for each of the county’s precincts.
While supervisors voted last March to go ahead with contract negotiations based on Ginnold’s proposal, they said they had not made a final decision on whether or not they would adopt her vote-counting plans for November and beyond, and agreed to the contract negotiations in order to keep the process moving.
Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker said at the March meeting that she voted for the contract negotiations because they were “not binding us to the purchase,” adding that “killing this resolution today would mean that the Registrar of Voters could not move forward with providing options.”
Meanwhile, the county is currently conducting a nationwide search for a permanent registrar of voters.
Guy Ashley, a management analyst in the county Auditor Controller’s office who is on temporary assignment with the Registrar of Voters office for the June primary, said that while several applications have already been received, the search for the new registar has been put on the backburner while county staff focused on the primary election.
“We’ll be buckling down afterwards to try to hire someone,” Ashley said. “We’re hoping to have someone permanent in place for the November elections, but I don’t know how feasible that is.”
According to Bertelsen, that is why the county should wait on the purchase of the new voting machines.
In addition, she said that purchase should wait until after the November election, when a new Secretary of State is chosen, and there is more certainty over the status of certification of the currently available systems.
“A major choice of permanent equipment should not be made until the permanent registrar is in place,” she said. “We may find someone who is an excellent candidate, but if we’ve tied our hands with the purchase of technology that person believes is garbage, they might even decide not to come. Instead, this is a real opportunity to integrate the search for a new registrar of voters with a search for new voting technology.”