California elections officials prepare for first top-two primary
New format, redistricting, new language requirements bring questions
Every election cycle brings changes to the process, some big, some small, but always changes.
This year was no different for elections officials in California where multiple counties are encountering new bilingual requirements, all counties faced redistricting and the increasing popularity of vote-by-mail.
Also in California this year for the first time is the implementation of a top-two primary system enacted by voters as Proposition 14 in 2010, which while it definitely involved some technical changes for staff, more than anything created a whole new learning curve for voters.
“Our office sought to educate as many voters as possible about the new primary process and developed our Prop 14 Speakers Bureau to specifically address voter education,” explained Neal Kelley, registrar of voters in Orange County.
“We provided training and materials that offered an in-depth look at Proposition 14 and encouraged training attendees to present that information to various organizations countywide. “
Attendees received detailed powerpoints developed by registrar of voters staff, supplementary notes and in-person training on multiple dates. The website was also updated with a Prop 14 based FAQ page, and a general overview of the Top Two Primary process. The registrar and staff attend hundreds of community events within the county to provide voter education, which includes providing information about Proposition 14 and changes to the primary process.
“Through these types of events, we are able to make contact with hundreds of thousands of voters,” Kelley said.
In Santa Clara County, the registrar of voters formed a Top 2 Task Force led by the ballot layout manager. The task force reviewed laws as they went through legislative and procedural changes and looked at documentation as it was created from the secretary of state’s office.
For Rita Woodard in Tulare County, it’s been an all-out media blitz to let the public know about the new process.
“I have been interviewed by local radio stations. We have issued a letter to the editor and released it to all local media contacts. There have been several pieces written about the Top 2 in the local media,” Woodard said.
In addition to voter outreach, counties have also had to retrain staff and poll workers in the process so they can in turn help voters who may have questions.
“Most of our questions have been about the top two primary. For some reason voters seemed to think they would be allowed to vote for two candidates instead of one,” explained Susan Ranochak, Mendocino County assessor-clerk-recorder. “They also thought that the top two primary would apply to the presidential primary race. They were surprised when they were not given the opportunity to vote for all candidates seeking the nomination of president.”
Bilingual Voter Information
Several counties throughout California were added to the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act.
Sacramento County is required to provide voting information in Chinese for the first time — it was already providing ballots in Spanish.
“We formed a community advisory board that has been great to work with. We met with them every other week in the beginning and they helped us with the right newspapers ads, the right outreach events and the best ways to use our resources,” explained Jill LaVine, Sacramento County registrar of voters. “They even reviewed all our translations.”
Part of the work on the new bilingual information included a new contract for language translation, new Chinese-speaking staff, translating the voter website, recruiting Chinese-speaking poll workers and offering the staff a class in Chinese etiquette.
“While working with the Chinese community has been great – more Outreach is needed with those that don’t speak Chinese and want to know why it is on their ballot,” LaVine explained. “We put all three languages on the ballots, this was confusing for many voters that could not find the ‘English’.”
As Sacramento County was relying on a community advisory board, counties in the Bay Area had a little help from their neighbors to prepare for new language requirements.
While the languages Santa Clara County is mandated to provide did not increase, a few neighboring counties did have new language requirements.
“Santa Clara County assisted counties by sharing knowledge, glossaries, practices, and in providing last-minute translations for ballot instructions. ROV ensured that all new top-two educational materials were in all languages and distributed through our staff and community based organizations,” explained Barry Garner, registrar of voters.
Even with the U.S. Postal Service struggling to stay afloat, more and more voters are turning to vote-by-mail as their choice to cast a ballot. In many California counties more than half of the voters use the mailbox instead of the ballot box.
Although registrars have said this can ease the election-day load, the increased popularity of vote-by-mail isn’t without issues that impact the elections office.
“Over 60 percent of the voters in Marin are voting by mail for this election,” explained Elaine Ginnold, registrar of voters for Marin County. “The impact is that we are running two elections because we still have to prepare all of the supplies and equipment for the polling places. The law limits the number of voters we can assign to each polling place. The other issue for us is that our ballot counting equipment is old and slow so it takes days to count the VBM ballots.”
Elections officials across the country have had to deal with the complications from redistricting and those in California are no different.
“Redistricting was and still is a big job in the county. Once the redistricting was done for the county, new precinct lines had to be created moving many voters to new precincts and voting locations,” explained Kent Christensen, Merced County assessor-clerk-recorder/registrar of voters. “Additional precincts were added which means additional polling places needed to be found.”
In Sacramento County, LaVine said redistricting has caused an expected number of problems with voters not being able to find their candidate that they have always voted for. She noted that many voters are writing in their choice thinking registrar’s office made an error.
“With all these changes our phones are busier than ever,” LaVine said. “When a voter calls and says we gave them a wrong ballot, each call must be researched to make sure we have given them the correct ballot.”
The additional cost of implementing these changes has ranged from nominal to thousands of extra dollars.
In addition to extra staff time for training, the largest cost for many counties has come from printing larger ballots to accommodate the “plain-English” instructions for voters for the top-two primary and the bilingual ballots in other counties.
“A second factor affecting the primary is the economy and consequent budgetary restrictions the department is under,” Kelley said. “Staffing, equipment, and voting materials must all be considered as we join others in ‘tightening our belt’ while still conducting a successful election.”