By Bre Payton | Watchdog.org
TURNOUT: California’s low turnout rate due to flaws in the voter rolls, and the potential for fraud, experts say.
Embarrassingly low voter turnout in Tuesday’s primary highlights problems with the Golden State’s voting rolls.
Only 13.19 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles County participated in the primary, according to the L.A. County registrar.
While the Los Angeles Times attributed the low participation rate to contented voters, voter integrity groups say voters believe their ballots don’t matter because of the flawed system.
“The decline not only in California but nationally in voter turnout has a lot to do with the growing distrust of the overall process,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote, a national volunteer organization that works to ensure free and fair elections for all Americans.
Ellen Swensen is chief analyst at the Election Integrity Project, a volunteer organization that works to protect fair and honest elections in California.
“It is always disheartening to see low election turnouts, as this partly reflects voters’ lack of confidence that the system is fair,” she said.
California is the only state without a database of registered voters maintained at the state level. Instead, the voter rolls are maintained at the county level, and it’s a system integrity groups say is flawed.
“You couple procedural dysfunction with apathy and what you get is a recipe for disaster,” Engelbrecht said.
Getting the statewide database up and running is Republican Pete Peterson’s first priority, if, that is, he becomes secretary of state.
While Peterson said county registrars are doing their best, he thinks the Legislature has been defunding their work on a regular basis.
“I’m a limited government supporter,” Peterson said. “But I think where the government needs to be well-funded and well-supported is in the area of election transparency.”
EIP analyzed the voter data of California’s 10 most populated counties that comprise 55 percent of the electorate. It found inconsistencies in the methods from county to county, outlined in a recent report.
The state’s current system has led to addresses listed in two county rolls, allowing residents to vote twice — once in each county in which they are registered.
It appears nine people took advantage of this and voted twice, which “underscores deficiencies in California’s cross-county list maintenance procedures,” the EIP report stated.
Addresses aren’t the only things listed on two different county rolls. About 7,300 people appear to be registered in two different counties.
Deceased voters have yet to be purged from the rolls. According to EIP’s analysis, more than 18,000 dead people are registered to vote. Nearly 15,000 of these deceased registered voters are from L.A. County alone.
More than 45,000 people appear to be registered to vote twice. Of these, nearly 35,000 are from L.A. County.
But these figures come with a caveat.
Since EIP doesn’t have access to the DMV database, workers used names, birth dates, addresses and death records from the California Department of Health to verify this data.
The state would be able to better identify irregularities by cross checking EIP’s numbers with the DMV database, Swensen said.
L.A. County has by far the most poorly maintained roll, according to EIP’s report. Of ballots cast in L.A. County, 1.3 percent were “irregular” — they were cast twice or cast by a dead person. This rate of irregularities is twice as bad as neighboring counties such as San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside.
The L.A. County Registrar’s office declined to comment.
Swensen said EIP normally works rather quietly with county registrars to improve their methods. When EIP took its findings to the registrars for Kern, Kings and Fresno counties, the registrars modified their methods based on EIP’s findings.
While the registrar’s cross-checking process hasn’t changed, EIP helped identify where that process may not detect someone registered twice, said Karen Rhea, chief deputy registrar of voters for Kern County.
“It enabled us to recognize where this (system) was falling through,” Rhea said. “It allowed us to identify instances where someone hadn’t identified themselves as a previously registered voter.”
But when the group got no response from several key counties, including L.A. County, it decided to go public with its findings.
The next step is to “get legislators involved and also get the officials themselves to wake up and do something about it,” Swensen said.
In addition to raising public outcry, EIP plans to present evidence of people they believe voted unlawfully to law enforcement.
California’s issues with the voter rolls have been a long time coming.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the “Help America Vote Act,” which required states to develop a computerized database, maintained at the state level, by January 2004.
California failed to meet this deadline and made an agreement with the Justice Department to implement a temporary system called CalVoter, when it almost failed to meet the 2006 extension date.
CalVoter synchronizes the county rolls, instead of maintaining a database at the state level. The future statewide database, VoteCal, is planned for 2016.
Ironically, the contracting company working on the VoteCal database is CGI Technologies and Solutions, an arm of CGI Federal, the company that botched the Healthcare.gov site.
CGI Technologies and Solutions was awarded the contract in March 2013, after another contractor, Catalyst Consulting Group, failed to meet several deadlines stipulated in the contract. The contract was terminated in 2010, and the state paid the company a $1.8 million settlement.
CGI Technologies and Solutions was the only company to bid on the project, due largely to narrow state requirements. In fact, the request for proposal from the state was more than 500 pages.
As secretary of state, Peterson said he would “take a step back and outlay what we know about the contract.”
“I actually have some serious concerns about the status of that contract and whether or not it will in fact be completed by 2016,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of transparency about how that contract has been awarded and the status of that contract.”
Swensen said two changes can alleviate problems with California’s voter rolls and low turnout — getting the VoteCal system up and running and implementing voter ID requirements.
“In other states where they have done the voter ID laws, it has improved the turnout,” she said. “It boosts voter confidence in the system and raises participation.”
Bre Payton is a reporter for Watchdog.org, and can be reached at BPayton@watchdog.org, or follow her on Twitter @Bre_Payton.