Deva Marie Proto, the County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters, has been making the rounds of local municipalities to help educate the community about the new voting systems and plans in place for 2020 and beyond.
Proto’s office and title can be a bit confusing, in part because it represents the consolidation of multiple offices over the past few decades. In 2001, the county clerk and the county recorder — both elected offices — were combined, and at the time, the clerk position already included the registrar of voters, the clerk of the board of supervisors and the “public guardian-public administrator.”
According to Proto, the mission of her office is to “assure honest and open elections, maintaining and preserving property and vital records, and setting fair and equitable values for tax purposes in an accurate, timely, professional, and courteous manner.”
The previous election system utilized in Sonoma County was the “Mark-A-Vote” system, originally installed in 1983. It is a paper-based optical scan voting system. According to Proto, it is so antiquated, that not only are the machines themselves no longer manufactured, but also you can no longer get replacement parts (she shared that they have a stack of old machines, purchased from other municipalities phasing them out, in one part of the office that they have cannibalized for parts) and there is only one qualified technician, who is semi-retired, left to maintain the machines.
“And, he’s indicated he would like to retire,” she said with a laugh. “We also couldn’t do periodic counts,” said Proto. “Only the counts on election night and then the certified count 30 days later.”
In addition, since 2006, the eSlate Disabled Access Unit (DAU) has been used for those in need of additional support for voting, though it was unwieldy and seldom used.
“In 2017-18, we came to a place where we could make changes to the system,” Proto said. “We could purchase a new system (because) the state came out with some funding.”
According to Proto, there were only two certified systems available. As part of the voting system replacement project, the county did a request for proposals.
The chosen system, Dominion Voting, was used in March 2019 for the election for the Palm Drive Health Care District, and this March will be the first time it gets used by the entire county. Since 80% of the county currently votes by mail, rather than at polling places, the fact that the cards used by the new system can be printed on demand by either a print vendor or from a mobile ballot printer in Proto’s office will allow for significant cost savings. For most precincts, the ballot will be 8½-by-14 inches, double-sided.
Using paper ballots, voters fill in ovals next to their choice, and those ballots are then transported to the secure Sonoma County Ballot Counting Room, where they are tabulated on the Dominion ImageCast central count scanner. The new system will also allow for better tracking of votes in real time, including a election night reporting system that has a map-based component that allow zooming in at the precinct level.
Election security rules require paper ballots, a central count, no internet connectivity in the voting machines, cybersecurity, creating redundancies with manual process and procedures, and reconciliation counts.
“It’s a paper-based system, so there’s always paper we can go back to,” Proto said. “The central count must happen at a secure location. There is no internet connectivity, we do printing to a USB drive, and the machines are wiped. Our office has redundancies to make sure we have backups and manual processes and procedures. We do a lot of reconciliation.”
One big change to voting patterns throughout California is the increase in vote by mail, and also an increase in how long it takes voters to return their mail-in ballots.
The multiple steps required to process mail-in votes will be decreased with the new voting system, but still, the best thing voters can do to help expedite the final tallies is to turn in the vote by mail ballots early.
“We now may be able to offer periodic updates. We have E+3, which means that up to three days after the election we do accept ballots if post marked before or on election day,” Proto said. “The best way people can help is to send in their vote by mails early.”
“Unfortunately, what we are seeing now, voting habits have changed and people are waiting for a scandal or the next news cycle to hit and waiting until last minute,” Proto said. “We used to have counted 80% of the votes by election night, now it might be 50%.”
For more information about the new system and to see a photo gallery of the installation of the new machines, go to sonomacounty.ca. gov/CRA/Registrar-of-Voters/Voting-System.