Nov. 1 2016 05:13 PM

San Diego County’s Registrar of Voters touts voting safeguards

    Workers inspect mail-in ballots at the San Diego Registrar of Voters Office.
    Photo by Torrey Bailey

    After tumbling in the polls, Donald Trump regained some ground following Friday's news that the FBI is examining another batch of Hillary Clinton's emails. But all along, the Republican presidential candidate has ratcheted up distrust in the United States' electoral system. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found widespread distrust of the electoral process, specifically among Republicans. According to the poll, if Clinton wins the election just half of Republicans would accept the outcome; 70 percent said a Democratic victory would be the result of election rigging.

    "There is an awful lot of evidence that there's been a lot of manipulation in the election process, especially by the Democratic party," said Gina Roberts, president of the San Diego Chapter of Log Cabin Republicans.

    Manipulated electronic polling devices, hacked systems and ballots cast by ineligible voters are a few in a long list of theories that many Republicans have bought into. But for San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu, these concerns are nothing new.

    "I've been conducting elections for over 20 years now, and I haven't seen or experienced any systemic or widespread election rigging of any nature, and part of the reason why is because we have such a system of decentralization, not only from a voting system perspective, but also because there's so many people involved," he said.

    As cyber-security threats have become common during this campaign cycle, Trump has pointed at the possibility that the election will be hacked. During early voting, electronic touch-screen voting machines in North Carolina, Texas and Nevada have been reported to be flipping votes—but, these machines aren't connected to the Internet. Votes are stored on a memory card, which is protected by a tamper-evident seal, and every electronic vote is accompanied by a paper trail verified by voters. The Internet is only involved in the election process during online voter registration and when the county publishes election data, minimizing the chance of cyber intrusion.

    "When we talk about all the concerns associated with hacking or rigging or election fraud or voter fraud, is it possible?" Vu asked rhetorically. "Yes, it's possible. But, really, the larger question is what are the probabilities of it happening. There are just too many checks and balances out there to prevent it at any widespread or systemic level."

    Trump has also repeatedly told his supporters to seek out ineligible voters at the polls on Election Day and stop them from casting ballots. The Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 8 out of 10 Republicans are concerned ineligible voters will cast ballots. Four out of 10 Democrats feel similarly. The Registrar of Voters addresses these concerns with provisional ballots, which are distributed to anyone who shows up at a polling place but whose name doesn't appear on the voter registration rolls.

    "Provisional ballots are probably one of the most misunderstood and controversial parts of an election," Vu said.

    Provisional ballots were specifically designed to block double voting. No matter how many times a person turns in a provisional ballot, only one vote per registered voter is counted. If someone is caught attempting to cast multiple votes, they will be prosecuted, as was the case for one woman in Iowa who was caught last week voting twice for Trump.

    Another concern is whether people are casting votes under a false identity. The voter registration rolls are constantly updated by the registrar's office, which receives up-to-date lists from the County Clerk's Office and the California Office of Vital Records, as required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

    "People are always turning 18 years of age, people are leaving the county, people are dying, people no longer want to be registered to vote in the county," Vu said. "So you have a variety of different reasons why a voter would come onto the rolls or come off of the rolls."

    He also said that the county meticulously verifies the lists with the voter rolls to avoid accidentally removing a registered voter.

    One technical concern for some voters in the city of San Diego was bleed-through, specifically that a vote bubble on Measure E was in the same spot as a bubble on Measure K on the flip side of the ballot. Vu said this can happen any time a large number of contests must fit onto an 18-inch ballot. Bleed-through only occurs if a felt-tipped pen is used, according to Vu, which is why the ballot is printed on 90-pound cardstock, and poll workers provide ballpoint pens. Two people looking to spot such errors examine every ballot.

    With 8,000 poll workers, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office is one of the county's largest employers. Virginia Kasten is one of those volunteers. She's worked at the polls for 35 elections, collecting voting buttons all the way, and said there's no reason to be skeptical of the system, or those who are running it.

    "From the people I work with to the voters and everyone at the Registrar of Voters Office, it has always been a positive experience, and that's why I continue to do it year after year," Kasten said.

    Although San Diego has a high voter turnout rate compared to other Southern California counties, Vu is worried that Trump's fraud allegations could harm local participation.

    "The concern is when voters start disengaging and people are not fully informed about the process," he said. "When individuals throw out blanket statements without any level of substance or truth in it, or when it's such broad statements, it potentially can affect a voter's want or desire to participate. That's far from how we should be addressing the public."

    Despite having her suspicions, Roberts from San Diego Log Cabin Republicans said they aren't keeping her from the polls. "I don't know if the extent of [the manipulation] is enough to actually throw the election one way or another, especially now that there's some [media] visibility on it," she said. "As a person, I'm not really comfortable with believing that thereís a failure in our electoral process."


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