California's 20th-Century "Voting Experience"

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A drive through the office parks of Silicon Valley may fool you into thinking California is a state with its eyes focused firmly on the future. But there’s nothing like a national report from a presidential commission on state election systems to make you feel like you’re living in the Dark Ages.

Silicon Valley, meet Paper Mountain.

While parts of “The American Voting Experience” study from the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a great antidote to insomnia, vast sections speak to election systems of states in a parallel universe – one more advanced than California’s. Specifically, two sections of the report illustrate how, despite its status as most technologically advanced corner of America – the Golden State is saddled with a 20th-century experience when it comes to voting.

Take, for example, page 23 of the report (which is 100 pages in all). The presidential commission casually celebrates “the statewide voter registration lists mandated by HAVA [the federal Help Americans Vote Act, 2002]. Prior to HAVA . . . voters who moved between counties, even within the same state, often appeared on two (or more) county registration lists for a considerable time. The statewide lists go a long way toward addressing that problem.”


California today would fall under the category of “prior to HAVA”. More than a decade after the law’s passage, with $300 earmarked for America’s nation-state, California remains one of the last states without a statewide voter database. After an initial commitment of $4.5 million to a vendor who failed to deliver, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, the state’s chief election officer, chose the information technology firm CGI – yes, the same folks fired earlier this month by the Obama Administration after the botched launch of – to create the database. That was supposed to be finished in 2015. A recent tweet from Bowen suggests that even that deadline might not be realistic.

This failure not only delays the launch of same-day voter registration in California, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2012, it’s also a barrier to ballot integrity. Merely abiding by longstanding federal legislation under HAVA would move California toward 21st-century voter roll accuracy, which, the report notes, “is often a prerequisite to effective election planning and administration.”

The commission also endorses multi-state voter roll associations in order to assure accuracy, and to help states identify new arrivals who have not yet registered to vote – in its words: “to share data and to collaborate in the synchronization of voter lists so that the states, on their own initiative, come as close as possible to creating an accurate database of the eligible electorate.” But California can’t begin to implement that recommendation until we have a statewide database. Thus the Golden State is failing to participate in either of the two major multi-state partnerships to improve the accuracy of voter rolls and help identify eligible voters who had not yet registered.  But that’s not the end of the story. State Sen. Alex Padilla, a candidate to replace Bowen this fall, successfully championed legislation actually banning California from joining the ERIC (Election Registration Information Center) collaborative.

Another set of unanimous bipartisan recommendations from the federal commission centers on voting technology. From page 11: “After HAVA was enacted, and in just a short window of time, most jurisdictions purchased new voting systems, upgrading from paper, lever or punch card systems to optical scan or direct recording electronic (DRE) machines. Few jurisdictions have budgeted to purchase new voting systems.”

“New voting systems”? In California, when several counties tried to move forward with more advanced voting technology using $22 million in HAVA funding, their projects were shut down by the Secretary of State’s office. While other states went ahead with second-generation voting machines and are now looking at third generation, California remains stuck with what is, in effect, pen-and-paper balloting.

This lack of digital voting machines prevents California from enacting another major recommendation of the Commission report: early in-person voting. “In order to limit congestion on Election Day and to respond to the demand for greater opportunities to vote beyond the traditional Election Day polling place,” the commission suggests, “states that have not already done so should expand alternative ways of voting, such as mail balloting and in-person early voting.” California already has voting-by-mail. But without some form of electronic voting machines, in-person early voting is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Last year, the non-partisan Pew Center on the States came out with its Elections Performance Index, ranking all the state elections systems on a variety of criteria. California came in 48th place. While some improvements – online voter registration, for example, have been undertaken, the Golden State remains pitifully low on the use of technology to inform voters. In fact, California is one of only two states to have no statewide online “voter lookup tools” such as finding a polling place or checking the status of an absentee ballot. With all due respect, it’s a sad day when Louisiana’s using technology to engage voters far better than California.

Though not meant to be, this new report is a gauntlet thrown down for the powers that be in Sacramento – specifically, the State Legislature and Secretary of State. Some of the recommendations will need further funding. That’s no easy task as, the report notes, “election administrators have described themselves as the least powerful lobby in state legislatures and often the last constituency to receive scarce funds.”

Such is the choice facing California: whether a state supposedly moving forwards continues to do so with a “voting experience” built on relics of the past.

Pete Peterson, formerly a Hoover Institution public policy fellow, is executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.