In an area that’s figuring out humanity’s future, or at least its space travel plans, smartphones and connected thermostats, the process of determining who will represent it in the United States Congress, lead its biggest city and watch over its water supply is underway.
A young man, surrounded by a few serious faces and swaying bodies with half-empty Chardonnay glasses, clicks the refresh icon on his laptop’s browser. It’s to no avail. A wall in one of the San Jose Marriott’s ballrooms, illuminated by projected election results, displays the frozen statistics the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters released three hours earlier.
The pinstriped union bosses. Political consiglieres with shocks of white hair or greased Pacino manes. Community activists who look agitated as usual. Significant others who want another drink. They have all come here to celebrate Dave Cortese’s presumptive triumph in the San Jose mayor’s race.
Instead they grouse about the cash bar, pick at cupcakes and sugar cookies in tables behind the TV stage, look at the wall and wait on a prayer. Time drags on.
Silicon Valley may be home base to many of the world’s most celebrated technical disruptors, but it also holds the dubious distinction of using a voting system that, to be kind, is, well, not exactly state of the art. Only one county in the state took longer than Santa Clara County to tabulate its election results. Mono County, the state’s slowest county, probably deserves a little leeway on its last-place finish; it spans 1,209 rural square miles of nowhere, straddling the border of the Yosemite and Stanislaus national forests.
But in what has become a consistently embarrassing reminder that the public sector could screw up a one-car funeral procession, Santa Clara County failed yet again last week to get out of its own way and deliver election results in a timely manner. The reasons vary—from a $19 million investment in 5,500 disenfranchised voting machines, most of which gathered dust in a county warehouse for the last seven years, to a sharp increase in absentee voting that kept county workers tabulating results an extra five days after the election. The likelihood that things will improve soon begs one simple answer: get real.
Shannon Bushey and Matt Moreles looked at one another Wednesday evening and realized it was time to go home. Both were tweaked on coffee and Red Bulls and beginning to feel the silliness that comes from sleep deprivation. Neither had gotten a wink of sleep in more than 37 hours. Both wore the same clothes they’d put on a day before. Election Day and Night (and another day and night) had made monsters of them.
As head of the Registrar of Voters, Bushey instructed her No. 2 to go home and get some food and sleep. She would do the same, mostly unaware of the frustration brewing outside of her office. She hasn’t been to an election night party in 20 years. But the anger would become apparent two days later, when word leaked that the ROV’s IT director, Joseph Le, walked off the job on election eve, casting doubt on why it took so long for Bushey’s office to gather results.
Sources tell San Jose Inside that Le quit because he felt unfairly singled out for a mistake in sample ballots, which were sent out in September and omitted information about candidates for the boards of Santa Clara County Unified School District and Gilroy’s Gavilan Community College. The exact tab of such a blunder is unknown, but is likely to have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Le reportedly chafed at having his work double-checked the rest of the way.
Bushey wouldn’t comment on the circumstances of Le’s departure—it’s a personnel matter, of course—but she insisted the accuracy of vote totals was unaffected. “None of our processes depend on one person,” she says. To prove the point, Bushey took the unusual step of asking the Secretary of State to examine the office’s execution. While not consulted, the call for a review apparently has support from her overseers.
“I think Shannon was making the prudent step, even though we’re all very confident that there are no irregularities in the counting,” county executive Jeff Smith says.
Slow results, several miscues on sample ballots and rumor of a mutiny within the ROV has once again cast a spotlight on an office that has undergone a decade of dysfunction. The last ROV, Barry Garner, resigned under a cloud of suspicion in early 2013. Sources tell San Jose Inside he was accused of sexual harassment by a staffer—and a similar incident during his employment as Fulton County, Georgia’s elections chief was apparently missed in the pre-hiring background check. Before that, Jesse Durazo oversaw the ROV for nine years. His tenure was distinguished by repeated absentee ballot count slipups, but he’s credited with increasing the number of people who vote by mail—a customer-friendly improvement that, ironically, has contributed to the current mess.
By far, however, the biggest setback to the county ROV’s mission of making election results public in a timely fashion occurred in 2007, when California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified 5,500 electronic voting machines that the county had purchased for roughly $19 million from Sequoia Voting Systems in 2003. (Funds came from a combination of the county, the state and the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002.)
Bowen, interestingly enough, was elected a year earlier with the help of the very same machines that her campaign platform opposed. Six months after taking office, she enlisted a team of University of California computer scientists, who over the course 28 days hacked three separate electronic voting systems: Diebolt, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia.
“Debra Bowen basically ran on a platform of the electronic voting machines in California not being safe and secure,” says Warren Slocum, a San Mateo county supervisor and Bay Area expert on electronic voting systems. He was elected as supervisor two years ago after serving as San Mateo County’s election chief for 25 years. “And to her credit there was evidence that the concerns were well-founded.”