Local elections for city councils and school boards are set for November and the state's presidential primary, now
moved forward, will occur in February. A primary for the rest of the state's partisan offices is set for June 2008, with a presidential election five months later in November.
Add to that a top-to-bottom review of the voting machines certified for use in California in August and the question becomes: Will San Mateo County actually be able to carry it out? And, more importantly, will the county be able to pay for it?
"The confluence of all these events creates issues in several areas, with money, with every aspect you can think of," said San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum. "For us and for everybody it's going to tax election staff because youhave overlapping election schedules. It's going to cost money."
The county is still unsure of what, exactly, it might be facing.
On March 22, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen proposed a review at the state level "to ensure that California voters are being asked to cast their ballots on machines that are secure, accurate, accessible and auditable." Comments to Bowen's proposal were due Friday. She intends to release a final proposal of her plans for the machine review on Friday. Public hearings will follow.
It's not that Slocum doesn't support the path that Bowen is heading down.
"The main policy issue, the main question, is people need to have confidence that their votes are counted correctly," Slocum said.
It's just that the path, Slocum and other election officials in the state feel, is awfully time-constrained and could leave the county having to scramble for a Plan B.
"If the results of the studies come out in such a way that the secretary has to decertify machines, counties would be in a real bind to figure out what to do for November and February," Slocum said.
If the county's 2,100 eSlate voting machines, manufactured by Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic, are among those decertified, the county might have to revert to all-paper ballot elections until Hart can bring them up to snuff. The county paid more than $10.4 million for the machines last year and could have to shell out more if it has to purchase hardware or software updates.
For certain, the Elections Office anticipates that moving the presidential primary up to February will cost the county an additional $1.5 million, Elections Officer David Tom said. The money will have to come from the county's general fund reserves.
"There's talk about state reimbursement, but until it's in the budget, county government can't count on being reimbursed," Tom said.
Tom said the Elections Office was just recently reimbursed for the $470,000 it had to spend to conduct the gubernatorial recall election in 2003.
Local reactions to all the changes vary. And it remains to be seen what suggestions Bowen might incorporate.
Slocum thinks Bowen should take her review one step further to include all voting devices in the state, such as optical scan machines that count paper ballots. Her proposal only calls for reviewing electronic voting machines.
"It's not just electronic machines that have had problems in America," Slocum said. "It seems like all machines have had problems from time to time."
Slocum conceded that the proposal was a win for the electronic voting skeptics, but Half Moon Bay resident and voting rights activist Brent Turner said it was not enough.
"Even though this is a nice step in a good direction, with the top-to-bottom review, we're still hoping that the good secretary of state aligns with the open source community and gets more progressive," Turner said. "The real issue becomes with the certification process."
A press release from Bowen's office notes that "the review itself will be conducted publicly, though law regarding confidentiality and proprietary software will restrict access to certain aspects."
Turner said the only way to satisfy skeptics is to make the process entirely open.
"They would have the benefit of all the eyes of all the Internet experts of the world," Turner said. "Everyone can witness it and if there's anything out of order, of course it's easily noticed."
Meanwhile, Turner said that he and other voting activists were ambivalent about the moving up of the presidential primary.
Though there is some trepidation about voter fatigue and the work involved in having three elections in one year, it seems to be outweighed by the interest it will generate, said Andrew Byrnes, chair of the San Mateo County Democratic Central Committee.
"Most San Mateo Democrats are excited that they're going to have a much greater say of who the nominee is going to be than in the past," Byrnes said. "Getting people engaged and excited is a good thing."
Staff writer Rebekah Gordon can be reached at (650) 306-2428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.