Seeing double

This time next year–while you’re marveling over the power you just exercised as a voter in California’s early presidential contest–spare a thought for your local election workers. They are truly mighty.

In other California’s early primary experiments, the presidential ballot was consolidated with all of the other races in the regularly scheduled primary.
But under the new presidential primary scheme expected to be signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger this week, Californians will get to vote in an extra election just weeks before the regularly scheduled June primary.

The cost of the additional election to counties is expected to be $90 million, more or less.

While the actual election dates are a mere four months apart, the actual election work overlaps in several important areas. In fact, local election officers will basically be holding two elections at the same time.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar of voters in Sacramento County, where the early primary will tap the local general fund for $3.5 to $4 million.

“We will not have finished our February election before the deadlines for the June election hit,” Jarboe explained.

Verifying the provisional ballots and performing a manual recount of a small percentage of the votes cast–all required by state election law for fair and clean elections–can take up to four weeks. By that time, candidates for election in June already will have started filing their papers for election on February 11.

Then there’s the testing and maintenance of the voting machines, which can’t even begin until the February election is completely put to bed.

In many cases, the people who are tasked with preparing for the June election already will have their hands full wrapping up the February election.
“You can’t have people in two places at the same time. I’m going to have to clone these people,” said Jarboe.

Jarboe also is concerned there won’t be any time to clean up the voter rolls, which can save time and money by weeding out voters who have moved, or died.
Juggling two elections at once is going to add significantly to election labor bills, said Jarboe, as workers pull double shifts and rack up overtime. And right now, there’s no hard money in the early primary legislation–SB 113–to reimburse the counties for their costs.

“Without a specific mechanism, it often doesn’t happen,” said Farrah McDaid Ting, legislative director for the California State Association of Counties.
The bill was amended in early February to offer some comfort to counties, when the words, “It is the intent of the Legislature to fully reimburse counties for the costs resulting from the presidential primary elections,” were added.

“We’re grateful for the intent language,” said McDaid Ting. “We’re just concerned that the tab could get lost in the shuffle.”

Case in point: The special election of 2003–the one that gave California Governor Schwarzenegger. Counties shouldered the financial burden of that election without being reimbursed. And reimbursement for the 2005 special election didn’t show up in legislation until nine months after that contest.

This time, the local election officials tried to get the Legislature to approve a scheme that would let some counties perform the presidential primary completely by mail. That would have saved the counties a lot of time and money. “It just flopped. There was never any air in that balloon,” said Steven Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Elected Officials.

That means there’s little left to do for county clerks and registrars but suck it up.

“If the Legislature tells us to do something, we do it,” said Jarboe. “Frankly, sometimes I don’t know how we do it. The people here are fabulous.”

Contact Cosmo Garvin at

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