County Registrar of Voters Returns to the Public Trough

The notoriously poor-performing Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters is back at the public trough, asking the Board of Supervisors (BOS) for millions more in taxpayer money for electronic equipment that may never be needed.

Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey and her lieutenants want to spend $2.5 million to buy electronic poll books to replace the paper logbooks that voters sign when they go to the polls on Election Day. They say they need about 800 of these little electronic gadgets.

Oh, there’s more. The Registrar of Voters (ROV) wants to spend an additional $150,000 a year for software licensing fees that would give the county the right to use its own poll books.

It makes no financial sense for the registrar to spend so much money for electronic poll books while at the same time it appears that the county supervisors are considering changing to all vote-by-mail elections.

Here’s the math:

The ROV says that the majority of Santa Clara County’s voters cast their ballots by mail, with only 20 percent to 30 percent still preferring to go to the polls. The math translates to 150,000 voters at more than 800 polling places in a presidential election.

That would mean buying more than 800 poll books—presumably one per polling place—to sign in about 188 voters at each location at a cost of $3,125 per book.

That’s more than sixteen bucks a signature.

Never mind that fewer and fewer voters are voting at the polls; there were only 96,000 of them in the November 2014 election. If the county does go to all vote by mail elections, there would only be a few places for voters to cast their ballots in person, at places where the electronic poll books could be used.

The ROV would be stuck with close to 800 unused electronic poll books that could join the roughly 4,500 touch-screen voting machines—another one of the ROV’s bad decisions—that have been gathering dust in the county’s climate-controlled warehouse for years. Once again, the ROV would be left with an additional stockpile of expensive but useless equipment.

But wait, there’s more!

The ROV wants board approval to buy four more optical ballot reading machines at a cost to be determined at a later date. The ROV already owns 14 of these ballot-reading scanners.

According to the county’s contract with the vendor, each machine can read 400 ballots per minute, or 24,000 per hour. That means all 14 machines combined could read 336,000 ballots an hour.

After the polls closed in the November 2014 election, the ROV claims it ran those machines for six hours and all operated satisfactorily. However, that was the infamous night of the agonizingly slow election returns. And the ROV processed only 96,000 poll-voted ballots with scanners that could have run 2 million in the same time.

So now the ROV honchos want four more machines to give them the ability to count 2.5 million ballots in six hours—more than double the entire population of Santa Clara County. Four more costly scanners is just simple, unnecessary overkill.

Remember, the November 2014 election was plagued by slow vote results, costly ballot errors, contradictory and confusing public statements by the Registrar of Voters, and the abrupt resignation of a key employee. The ROV’s response to that debacle was to ask the Board of Supervisors for 11 new employee positions at an annual cost of roughly $1.4 million. The board approved the positions and funding without stipulating any goals, performance measures or benchmarks for improvement.

Given its recent history, we wonder if the ROV came up with its wish list in an effort to deflect blame for its election dysfunction. Conversely, we wonder if the BOS is acquiescing to the ROV’s pressure as a means to stop the noise without the sustained focus needed to resolve the underlying problems. We question that if the BOS doesn’t give the ROV everything it wants, they could point their fingers at the Board in the event of any future crises. And, perhaps if the Board gives the ROV everything, they, too, would be off the hook.

None of these requests address the real and glaring root causes of the ROV's poor performance. Hiring more staff, acquiring new equipment, training poll workers on new technology and complying with new, unknown election legislation is a lot of uncertainty. It is a recipe for disaster that should not be risked in the 2016 presidential election.

The ROV’s request was discussed Tuesday, during a county budget workshop, and the ROV’s budget will be finalized in June.

Santa Clara County taxpayers’ money should not be spent frivolously. We deserve a better return on our investment given the Registrar of Voters’ poor track record. The Board of Supervisors should deny these costly big ticket items.

Sharon Sweeney is chair of the Santa Clara County Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Elections. Jean Ackerman is a citizen proponent of good government.

11 Comments

  1. Lots of questions.

    How late we were we with last years Mayoral results? IIRC we were still counting votes a week later.
    It’s a lot of money, no doubt, but looking at the situation as a whole the CTO’s sudden departure on election night was a sign of giving up. What were the working and support conditions at the ROV? What drove this man to walk away from a nice hefty salary and benefits?

    My guess would be a lack of manpower and hardware budget made the task impossible. He saw that, he walked. People tried to spin that he had “Walked off with hard drives” but what was the result of that? Did anyone ever ask if they were returned? Somebody is trying to paint a picture of the voting process as broken, expensive, and has to be completely shelved in favor of vote by mail. Authors are schilling for this. Why?

    The equipment requisition of $2.5m is a drop in the bucket for over 800 devices. Years ago the county spent over $100k per device for Diebold machines, I forget, was it $14m they spent?. $3,125 per book seems extremely reasonable by comparison.

    Not once is the motivation for the new equipment expressed. It goes back to the very first question I asked. How late were last years mayors results? Our voter base has grown beyond the ROV capacity to process votes. Significantly so since we purchased those old Diebold machines. Equipment gets old, obsolete. Faster equipment to handle the workload just seems like a no-brainer.

    Whatever your computer at work, let’s replace it with a MacII Classic with 512mb of RAM and a 40mb hard drive and see how much work you get done.

  2. I have a different view, Cousin Cortese. The ROV lost the wrong person before the last general election. The wrong person resigned. It is Ms. Bushey who should have resigned. Ms. Bushey wants more and more expensive hardware and software to process fewer and fewer polling place ballots; increasing the expenditures of an already fat, bloated, and inefficient office. The operation of most government offices takes its direction by observing its leader. Ms. Bushey’s tenure has been a study in inefficiency and ineffectiveness at the helm. The recent D4 primary is a perfect example of the inefficiency of the ROV’s office—it took 10+ days to count fewer than 10k ballots. Five trained monkeys could have done it more quickly. In the last general election SCC was the second to last county of California’s 58 counties to report results. The BOS needs to give Ms. Bushey a polite kiss goodbye. Santa Clara County needs a lean and efficient ROV office. Clearly Ms. Bushey is not the person to lead it.

    • The hardware is arguably out of date. If there’s any point I wish to be expressed and accepted is this; IT has hardware lifecycles. There would be no such thing as “no lifecycle” or “Last forever” in voter related IT hardware.

      Of those fewer than 10k ballots, how many were paper? Paper is just inefficient. I’m going to throw a term I learned from Futurama; Robophobia. Why is everyone so Robophobic when it comes to IT in voting?

      Five trained monkeys. One or less trained monkeys with the right technology.

      • Of course paper is inefficient, but you missed my point Cousin Cortese. The entire ROV office is dysfunctional, and Ms Bushey is screaming for more technology to save her bacon. But more expensive technology with poor leadership is not a solution either. The people are a problem, because their leader is THE problem. New leadership, not more dollars thrown at the problem, is the solution. What have more dollars thrown at education given us in return? Not much.

  3. The proprietary vendor for which Mr. Cortese seems to be misinformed about was Sequoia. In 2003, the ROV bought 5500 touch screen machines from Sequoia and three Sequoia 400-C optical scanners. Those are two separate systems. The touch screen machines known as DREs were decertified by the Secretary of State in 2006, and about 1000 were recertified thereafter — one per precinct. At that time, the County moved to paper ballots, and the ROV bought several more optical scanners, bringing the total to 9 by 2008. For the 2010 election, the ROV bought 5 more scanners, bringing the total to 14. The issue on the night of the November 4, 2014 election had to do with the relatively few poll voted ballots which have been steadily declining since 2004 when the State enacted legislation allowing anyone to register as permanent vote by mail. For instance in 2006, 258,157 ballots were cast at the polls on Election Day and were scanned and tablulated using far fewer scanner/tabulation machines in the same amount of time that only 97,077 poll voted ballots were scanned and tabulated with far more machines in Nov. 2014. Mr. Cortese should check the facts and the numbers before he guesses and speculates at the debacles that occurred before and during the November 2014 election.

    • The proprietary vendor for which Mr. Cortese seems to be misinformed about was Sequoia. In 2003, the ROV bought 5500 touch screen machines from Sequoia and three Sequoia 400-C optical scanners. Those are two separate systems.

      How am I misinformed? It was $14m in 2003. The equipment is older than my kids. They need replacement.

      For instance in 2006, 258,157 ballots were cast at the polls on Election Day and were scanned and tablulated using far fewer scanner/tabulation machines in the same amount of time that only 97,077 poll voted ballots were scanned and tabulated with far more machines in Nov. 2014.

      2006 was a presidential election year, and there was probably more volunteers and voters for that than the 2014 mayors race.

      Mr. Cortese should check the facts and the numbers before he guesses and speculates at the debacles that occurred before and during the November 2014 election.

      Management issues are a symptom and not a cause when you’re dealing with a mostly volunteer workforce, working on 12 year old machines. What, I shouldn’t speak up because I disagree with your analysis?

      • Again, Mr. Cortese, you are misinformed, you haven’t done your homework, and you don’t seem to iknow the difference between the touch screen system (DREs) and the optical scanning system. The 2006 election was a gubernatorial — same as Nov. 2014. And yes, there were MORE people who voted at the polls in 2006, mostly on paper ballots — 258,157. In 2014, there were only 96,077 who voted at the polls, mostly on paper ballots. These are the ballots that are counted on Election Night, and it took the ROV the same amount of time to count 258,157 with fewer machines than it did to count 96,077 with 14 machines.

        And where did you come up with the $14 million figure for the DRE machines — 4500 of which have been stored since 2006-7 in the county’s climate-controlled warehouse, unused, except for cannibalizing them for parts? The price tag was much more, and you might want to check that out. I repeat, you should understand that the DRE machines that were purchased in 2003 are a separate system from the Sequoia 400-C scanners that were bought to count paper ballots — 3 in 2003, 6 more by 2008, and 5 more in 2010. Please do some research.

        • Again, how am I misinformed about equipment older than my kids? How am I misinformed when paraphrasing you, “The machines are being cannibalized for parts?” That last bit is interesting, does it mean that the ROV is so underfunded they can’t order new parts or send machines out for servicing?

          And FYI I do know the difference between a touch screen and a scanner. Anything that old is out of date.. Period. I see the county waste money on less than hardware upgrades. Anyways, thanks again for validating my points. I’ve worked 20 years in IT, I know that 10+ year old hardware is usually moot.

  4. SJ Bubble: I was on the civil grand jury, which can investigate and report on issues involving government entities and special districts in the county, and issues recommendations to correct problems it discovers, if any, during its investigation. Each county has its own civil grand jury. Members serve for a one year term, and can seek to remain one additional year. Members are appointed by the presiding judge of the superior court. What you are asking about is the criminal grand jury, which is a secret proceeding at which only the D.A. gets to produce evidence and examine witnesses in order to obtain a criminal indictment against an accused. The criminal grand process is totally one-sided, but in modern times is largely unused in California. Instead, in most cases the D.A. files either misdemeanor or felony charges against an accused who has been arrested for a crime he/she allegedly committed It has the advantage for the prosecution that the criminal defense attorney has little idea before trial what the witnesses have said, unless the court unseals the grand jury transcript; whereas in all other cases, defense counsel can cross-examine witnesses at a preliminary hearing, which is much like a deposition in civil cases, but with less latitude. I think the criminal grand jury system should be abolished in its entirety, due to its one-sidedness and secrecy. In my opinion abolishing the grand jury only in cop cases sends a hugely unwarranted bad message about how the government feels about the police in general, as a result of as yet unsubstantiated allegations of police racial bias by a minute percentage of police officers nationwide. It points an accusing finger at all cops, which is like using a tactical nuclear weapon to kill a single cockroach. To me, this proposal is shameful grandstanding by its author. Long answer to a short question. Still posting a lot on company time, I see, CC.

  5. Sharon Sweeney and Jean Ackerman are right. I know first hand about the discrepancies that are never really being adressed with any true measurables. The is public funding folks, let’s get more accountability in place at all levels.

  6. All this “democracy” is a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

    Since DMV offices will now be the voter registration arm of the California Democratic Party, just add a tear-off coupon to the bottom of every driver’s license application. The coupon is a general power of attorney authorizing a vote for any Democrat candidate anywhere that is acceptable to the Governor.

    Just bundle up all the coupons and send them to the Secretary of State’s office.

    No muss. No fuss. No computer voting machines. No optical ballot readers or expensive software.

    And, as an additional benefit, the election vote counts will likely be much more timely and accurate.