Out of the 107,000 or so voters who cast ballots in last fall's presidential election in Monterey County, only 40 used touch-screen voting machines. Most of the one-third of voters who cast a ballot at precincts instead of mailing one in chose to fill out a paper ballot.
While each of the county's 126 precincts and county elections headquarters in Salinas had a voting machine available, as required by federal law, and each was assigned a back-up in case of mechanical failure, the machines sat virtually ignored during one of the busiest elections in history.
So while county officials are technically correct when they rejected a 2012 county civil grand jury's contention in an interim report issued just before the fall election that "most" of the millions of dollars in voting machines sit idle at elections headquarters and only a few disabled voters actually use them, the larger point appears to be valid.
In a formal response to the grand jury considered by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, county officials argued that nearly two-thirds of the county's 400 voting machines are either employed in the precincts or as back-ups during a given election, while the remaining third are rotated in for subsequent elections. The grand jury report, titled "Election Integrity Upheld by Monterey County Elections Department," dismissed the notion that voter fraud was rampant and that county elections procedures appeared "more than adequate" to safeguard against voter fraud. But the report made a series of findings and recommendations on ways to improve the local voting process.
County Registrar of Voters Linda Tulett said the grand jury likely misunderstood the voting machine information it was provided during its investigation, leading to what she said was an inaccurate conclusion, but she acknowledged the machines are rarely used. At the same time, Tulett said county elections doesn't push the use of voting machines, and actually doesn't verbally inform voters they are available at the precincts. Voters are informed that the machines are available for use via a written notice posted on a table at each precinct.
Tulett said the focus on using paper ballots began shortly after California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced a "top-to-bottom review" of the voting machine system and decertified the machines in 2007 shortly after Monterey County spent about $4 million in federal funding on more than 400 machines under the federal Help America Vote Act.
While Bowen eventually OK'd the machines, Tulett said the county had already essentially committed to the use of paper ballots.
Given the continued controversy over the machines and the fact they trigger a more thorough, time-consuming review of their results, Tulett said she asked herself, "Why go back?"
Tulett pointed out Santa Cruz County, which purchased more than two dozen of Monterey County's machines and uses them at a much higher rate, regularly faces broader reviews of its voting results.
In its findings and recommendations, the grand jury suggested that the high rate (13.7 percent) of damaged paper ballots and the difficulty the county's optical scanners have had in deciphering a "high percentage" of ballots in recent elections should prompt the county to consider "redeployment" of the voting machines. While the grand jury's recommendation suggested increased use of the voting machines would be helpful, the county's response merely stated that the supervisors "partially disagreed" with the recommendation, and that until the county obtained "newer voting technologies, the current ballot format and limitations on existing voting equipment must be adhered to."
The county's response also rejected the grand jury's recommendation to work with Bowen on resolving issues with the voting machines, arguing that the "antiquated technology" employed in the machines is not slated for any upgrade. However, the county agreed to work with the elections department and Bowen to use any remaining federal grant funds to acquire "new and proven voting technology."
In other responses to the grand jury's recommendations, the county agreed the county elections headquarters are too small for the department's needs and a larger site should be found, and pointed out that the grand jury's call for a "robust voter education campaign" designed to improve efficiency and access was already under way via the hiring of a new public outreach and education program manager charged with leading the department's outreach plan.
Last year, Tulett said the department conducted a record 70-plus outreach and educational events last year.
The board will re-consider the county's response, including any changes, to the civil grand jury's report during its meeting next week.
Jim Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 753-6753.