The Nov. 3 general election posed challenges for the Riverside County Registrar of Voters’ Office and created confusion among some residents, but the process can be smoothed out in the future with policy changes, according to a report that the Board of Supervisors will review Tuesday.
Under a board directive issued in early December, the Executive Office and registrar’s staff initiated an “After-Action Review” of the 2020 election and the lingering ramifications of the problems that surfaced.
The report does not point to the same irregularities and alleged fraud that resulted in a flurry of lawsuits and forensic audits, including the one underway in neighboring Arizona, following the presidential contest. However, the county’s difficulties do highlight the need for changes to bolster confidence in how elections are run, according to the report.
“There is little doubt that historic lessons have been learned from this historic election,” according to an Executive Office statement. “It was a massive undertaking.”
The report notes that four executive orders issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom and at least one bill approved by the Legislature between June and September led to higher workloads for registrar’s staff and a series of significant adjustments in how ballots were distributed and collected.
The biggest change was the conversion of every registered voter in the county to absentee status. The reported said that in the 2016 presidential election, there were 724,283 ballots mailed, while in the most recent one, there were 1,243,154 ballots sent — an increase of 70%.
That required more printing and mailing, on a scale the county had never experienced, officials said.
The state requirement for vote-by-mail conversion was based on the ongoing coronavirus public health emergency, according to the report. Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer said COVID fears also seriously impacted the logistical and staffing components of the election.
In previous contests, as many as 600 polling stations were available, staffed by 3,500 workers, most of them temporary hires. But Spencer said the same accommodations were not possible in November because many “long-serving poll workers were not willing to commit to serve” out of fear of COVID-19 exposure.
The alternative was to open 130 Voter Assistance Centers countywide, situated in places with concentrated populations. The centers were not firmly established until September, and officials tried to ensure lists were available to the public well in advance of election day.
People who received an absentee ballot were still permitted to vote at one of the centers, as long as they didn’t also mail in a ballot. It was unclear how many voters may have tried to visit a familiar polling station, only to find it closed.
Another hang-up occurred when the California Secretary of State’s Office activated the new ballot tracking system enacted under the executive orders.
“When the Secretary of State turned on the new ballot tracking system on Sept. 28, it automatically sent a notification to all registered voters claiming their ballots had been mailed on Sept. 10,” according to the report. “This notification was inaccurate because the ballots did not start going in the mail until Oct. 5. Many voters contacted ROV during the week of Oct. 5, concerned that they had not received their ballot yet but had received the ballot tracking notification.”
The snafu was ultimately ironed out with public messaging. However, the county engaged the Secretary of State’s Office asking for better communication in the future to prevent a repeat scenario.
As with prior elections, the vote-by-mail ballot surge ahead of election day created a logjam on election night. According to the report, the main stumbling block was not running ballots through high-speed scanners, but opening them, which can only be done by hand.
“There is no equipment on the market to automate this process,” the report states.
In the three weeks immediately following the election, the effort was further complicated by the fact that 23 registrar’s staff tested positive for COVID, resulting in a quarantine for them and 75 other workers who may have been in contact with them, all of which slowed the election certification process, according to the report.
The narrative lastly summarized problems that arose during the special elections in Cathedral City and Eastvale in February. Printing and providing ballots for all registered voters in the cities on time were at the heart of the trouble.
The vendor responsible for managing the production got them printed and sent — but not until the day before the special elections. The vendor had tried to get them into circulation the Saturday before the elections, but according to the registrar, the U.S. Postal Service had not been advised of the Saturday delivery, and therefore, nothing was arranged.
The report contains multiple recommendations for improvements going forward, including:
— seeking guidance from the state on the possibility of always initiating the process of tabulating ballots up to 15 days ahead of election day, as was permitted in the last election cycle, to expedite counting, instead of the customary 10 days;
— increasing public outreach through advertising and other means to ensure voters know exactly where and when they can cast their ballots;
— hiring new or additional vendors to handle production of ballots;
— adding staff for 24/7 operations “to meet demand of a large-scale election,” requiring increased appropriations for the registrar in some years; and
— elevating the registrar’s budget in the next fiscal year to enable the acquisition of new equipment for the Voter Assistance Centers, in anticipation of them possibly becoming permanent.