Board of Supervisors approves new voting equipment to comply with state election rules

Last month, Secretary of State Alex Padilla began the process of withdrawing certification or conditional approval of voting systems that were not tested or certified under the most recent state security standards.Padilla’s action requires county elections officials to implement voting systems that meet the state’s newest testing and certification standards in time for the March 3, 2020, Presidential Primary Election.

The current fiscal year’s state budget includes $134.3 million for counties to upgrade or replace aging voting systems, with counties required to provide a dollar-for-dollar match. Padilla said the funding can only be used by counties to purchase or lease a California Voting System Standards compliant system.

On Feb. 12, the Board of Supervisors accepted a resolution approving the county’s application to the state for $246,000 for the voting system, $10,000 for cyber security and $10,000 for polling place accessibility.

Financial support also is available from the final appropriation of funds to states from the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which Congress approved last year. Padilla designated $20 million of these funds to help counties purchase new voting equipment as they transition to the Voter’s Choice Act.

The California Voting System Standards were updated in 2015. Padilla’s office reported that, since then, 20 of California’s 58 counties have purchased voting systems that meet these higher standards, while several other counties have started the process of upgrading their systems.

Many counties, like Lake, have continued to use what are known as “legacy systems” that were not tested to the latest California Voting System Standards.

The Secretary of State’s Office confirmed that Lake County has continued to use the DFM Mark-A-Vote, an optical scan paper ballot voting system. Lake and Sonoma counties are the last two counties to use the system. Lake has used it since 1983.

Under the current California Voting System Standards, three voting systems have been tested and certified: Dominion Voting Inc.’s Democracy Suite 5.2 Voting System, the county of Los Angeles’ Voting Solutions for All People Tally 1.0 System and Hart InterCivic’s Verity Voting 3.0.1 Voting System.

Padilla said all other systems previously certified or conditionally approved – including Mark-A-Vote – will no longer be certified or conditionally approved effective August 27, 2019, as provided in California Elections Code section 19232. However, Padilla has made it possible for counties to request an extension for conditional use of legacy systems, which have to be submitted by April 5 with a plan and schedule for how to move to a certified system.

With funds available, on Tuesday the Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of Hart InterCivic’s Verity Voting 3.0.1 Voting System in order to meet the state deadline.

Hart was the lowest bidder of two who responded to a request for proposals the Registrar of Voters Office and County Administrative Office issued Jan. 22. The RFP closed on Feb. 14.

The much-needed updating of Lake County’s election equipment is set against a backdrop of uncertainty in who will be running the Registrar of Voters Office.

Longtime Registrar Diane Fridley retired and her expected successor, Deputy Registrar Maria Valadez – who had been appointed to serve as interim registrar upon Fridley’s retirement – took another job in Mendocino County, with their separate departures occurring in less than two months and resulting in the county losing nearly 70 years of experience and institutional knowledge.

County Administrative Officer Carol Huchingson, who the board appointed interim registrar after Valadez’s department, attempted to keep Valadez from being appointed on a permanent basis. Her tactic was an unsuccessful attempt in October to get the board to require a bachelor’s degree for the job.

After only being appointed on an interim basis in December, and with a better job offer with the county of Mendocino, Valadez left on Feb. 22.

With the board having given Huchingson control of the Human Resources Department last year – at her request – questions have been raised about the influence she will attempt to exert over the choice of a new registrar.

The job application period had been reopened through March 31 after a shorter previous recruitment yielded onto two qualified candidates, neither of which the board chose to hire, as Lake County News has reported.

Hart InterCivic representative explains new system

On Tuesday, Huchingson presented the equipment purchase to the Board of Supervisors, explaining her office worked with the Registrar of Voters on the request for proposals. She said Hart’s proposal was “considerably less” than the competing proposal, although the precise numbers have not been given in county documents or at meetings.

She said of Hart InterCivic’s proposal, “It is also the proposal that our outgoing registrar of voters staff preferred and thought was the best option for the county, and we very much value their opinion on that.”

Huchingson said that the county’s portion of the purchase is $275,252, with the remainder to be covered by the state. The county’s portion is to be paid out of one-time monies, a fund balance carryover from salary savings.

Later in the meeting, Deputy County Administrative Officer Stephen Carter clarified that $275,252 is the total purchase cost to be split by the county and state equally, so the county will pay less than $140,000.

At its Feb. 12 meeting, the Board of Supervisors had approved midyear budget adjustments that included $492,000 for the new voter equipment.

Karen Clakeley, Hart InterCivic’s director of sales and strategic accounts, spoke about the state-of-the-art equipment and explained how it works, emphasizing that it cannot be hacked, that attempts to tamper with it result in notifications and that it has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

She said Lake County has been a customer of Hart since 2006, and it was one of four counties in the state that has had a hybrid system that is a combination of the DFM Mark-A-Vote and Hart accessible units for the disabled.

“For me the most exciting thing for Lake County right now is you will be streamlining your elections procedures and processes,” she said, explaining that the county will now use a single system rather than having to be duplicative in its procedures.

“Elections are very process-oriented,” Clakeley said, noting that the state of California has certified certain procedures and processes that everyone must follow, and Lake County has had to do repetitive processes in its two systems.

Clakeley said the system’s components include an accessible marking device, the Verity Touch Writer, which will be at every voting location.

She said the county can be assured that the system meets not just current requirements but upcoming ones on the federal and state levels.

The Touch Writer device is “kind of an electronic pencil,” said Clakeley. “Any voter can have access to this device.”

With the state now requiring a shift to all paper ballots, the device – which creates paper ballots for every voter – will be a required element as well as having paper ballots for hand marking at all precincts and locations.

Clakeley, who is based in the Sacramento area, said Hart is based in Austin, and has been doing work in elections for more than 100 years. It started off printing ballots for Travis County, Texas, and is now serving 18 states. The Verity system is used in 11 states. It was the first system to be federally certified in 2015 and has been proven in presidential, gubernatorial and local races.

She said the system’s benefits are ease of use, performance, security and auditability.

Voter and public education will be important, and Clakeley said Hart will assist the county with that outreach as well as work with county leadership on how to speak to the media about the new election system.

Clakeley said the company will offer around-the-clock support not just during elections but year-round.

The county’s next election is May 7, a mail ballot for the Lakeport Fire Protection District’s Measure M fire tax.

Clakeley said the company will have a team of three people on site in the Lake County Registrar of Voters Office for that election to assist, coach, mentor and observe as county staff use the equipment for its first local election.

She said that election presents “kind of special circumstances,” an apparent reference to Lake County losing its two most senior registrar’s staffers in less than two months, leaving only part-time staff and staff pulled in from the County Administrative Office to cover on a temporary basis while the recruitment for the new registrar takes place.

Answering questions about new equipment

During a question and answer session with the board, Clakeley explained that the machinery is not networked on either the Internet or an intranet. It uses a secure proprietary USB drive and a lock and encrypted key to prevent tampering.

It also has a secure direct connection with a specific printer and secure encrypted cable. There is no bluetooth accessibility, she said.

She said nothing is stored on the device other than the ballots and election styles. The ballots will be centrally scanned together and the results can be automatically exported to the California Secretary of State’s Office, rather than requiring staff to retype results on an ongoing basis. Hart is the only company to offer that export capability, which is a huge time saver, she said.

“Voting is not the issue, it’s the count afterwards,” said Supervisor Rob Brown, explaining that Lake is always the last county to have its votes counted and finalized.

“You will have your results more quickly,” Clakeley said.

She explained that 10 days before the election, staff can begin scanning ballots, which will speed up the count. With its antiquated system, Lake County hasn’t been able to take advantage of such features that speed up the process.

Additionally, Clakeley said the county can encourage voters to turn in ballots early through education and outreach, which also can help it complete its election counts sooner.

During public comment, Cobb resident Lance Williams questioned the system’s security. “I don’t care how long it takes, I just want my vote to count.”

In response to such questions, Clakeley said, “The voting system is very secure.”

Supervisor Bruno Sabatier moved to approve the purchase, with Supervisor Moke Simon seconding and the board voting 5-0.

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