The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved the formation of an independent volunteer panel to observe all future Riverside County elections and report on the pros and cons, in the interest of promoting transparency and efficiency.

“I think at this time in our country, it’s important to have confidence in our election process,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said. “We need to have more education and more people involved.”

The supervisor said a “thoughtful, organized” body of citizens would prove valuable to the board and the Office of the Registrar of Voters.

The issue of forming the Citizens’ Commission on Election Integrity arose as the board considered the final draft of an “after-action review” submitted by Registrar Rebecca Spencer, which followed her initial submission on May 11.

Jeffries first requested that the Executive Office convene the commission in March 2020, and board Chair Karen Spiegel supported the idea, but it did not take root at the time for lack of a formal vote on the proposal.

In late May, sensing resistance from Spencer and Executive Office staff, Jeffries sent a letter pressing his case.

“Last November’s election showed exactly why having that extra layer of public trust in the system can be important, as the entire electoral process was called into question across the country,” the supervisor wrote. “I am not suggesting that our current registrar needs more oversight, and I never contemplated that this group would somehow be directly investigating individual missing, duplicate or fraudulent ballot allegations.”

Jeffries suggested the citizens’ commission should meet bimonthly or quarterly “to discuss real or perceived challenges and concerns with the protocols and processes of an election in advance, so that they can hear about … plans that are being put in place to solve potential problems as we identify them.”

Spencer and EO staff responded that there is already an Election Observer Panel that offers members of the public an opportunity to closely observe “behind-the-scenes” activities within the Office of the Registrar of Voters and submit input on what might be done differently “to ensure one-person, one-vote” is achieved.

“What we have with the observer panel is a free-for-all,” Jeffries said Yuesday. “It’s whoever wants to show up and take over the room. We need structure, education and interaction with the registrar.”

Spiegel concurred, expressing frustration that details about defects in prior elections that were provided to her by poll workers and others were then conveyed by her to registrar’s staff, “and it went nowhere.”

“I foresee we’re going to have challenges and accusations (in future elections),” she said. “We need to have more than a panel that pops up at election time.”

The board would be responsible for appointing the chairperson of the citizens’ commission, but selection of other members would be left to the EO, individual supervisors and unspecified community interests, according to Jeffries.

County staff are expected to return with a broader concept in the coming months.

The after-action review by itself focused on problems and challenges stemming from the 2020 general election.

In documents posted to the board’s agenda, registrar’s staff indicated several steps have already been taken to improve ballot processing for the Sept. 14 gubernatorial recall election, as well as the June 2022 primary.

State law now permits opening mail-in ballots up to 15 days prior to an election to permit registrars to get a jump on tabulation. The previous limit was 10 days. According to Spencer, the 15-day option will be fully exercised going forward to accelerate gathering and posting returns on election night.

According to the registrar, the check-in process at polling stations will additionally be more efficient due to the purchase of hundreds of laptop computers that will be used to confirm voters’ registration status. Staff at all 145 stations set to open for the gubernatorial recall will have the computers up and running the day before to ensure they’re functioning.

Some items remain on the registrar’s wish list, but those will require higher appropriations by the board. One proposal involves converting the registrar’s office to 24/7 operations “to meet demand of a large-scale election,” according to documents.

Spencer is also seeking 700 additional touchscreen voting units for use in polling stations by next year, to reduce queues that may result from too many people showing up at the same time to fill out paper ballots.

Those items, plus the proposed creation of a public information officer position and a switch to a new vendor to print and mail ballots, are projected to cost $1.5 million to $2 million. The board is slated to consider the appropriations after the first-quarter 2021-22 budget update is filed in October.

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