The San Mateo County GOP Election Protection Group 2021
Our Goal Locally
After the November 2020 Election voters had many questions about election integrity. Our goal locally was, can we have confidence in our County’s Election Office Staff and Procedures. Team leader Marjorie Baer led the efforts of the San Mateo County Republican Party’s Election Protection Group.
Our Accomplishments incuded mobilizing 45 motivated election observers
Since every California voter has the right to observe the processing of ballots and petitions, we began mobilizing 45 election observers to show up at the Election Office to engage with the staff and learn how our elections run. In the process, we have met with the Assistant Registrar of Voters, observed Recall Petitions being verified, and watched the Logic and Accuracy Tests being performed on election equipment. We have also spent 225 hours observing all the procedures involved in the Recall Election itself. The Staff at the Election Office had never seen so many Citizen Observers show up!
The Challenges for Observers
Because of the large number of Observers, the Staff was stretched trying to accommodate us. One of the challenges for observers was had to wait until a Supervisor could escort a group into the vote processing areas. Once inside staff kept us in a group which inhibited our plan of having Observers at multiple processing sites. The six-foot distancing guideline put out by the County Health Department made it difficult for some to actually see how processes were carried out. Some processes, done by machines, are unobservable. Observers were not allowed to bring in handbags or be seated.
Election Office Building has Some Security Weaknesses and Could be Vulnerable
The Election Office Building has some security weaknesses and could be vulnerable to break-ins. There were not enough security cameras in the vote processing areas to monitor the work. Further, the Cyber Security was not as good as it could be as per the recommendations of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Voting Systems Report. During the Logic and Accuracy Test of the On Demand Ballot Printing Machines, used at Vote Centers, it was noted that the ports were not secured as well as they could have been. Disabling the ports on the voting machines instead of covering the data and communication ports with stickers would be preferable. It is common practice in many industries to disable ports on secure computers.
Signature Verification happens when your ballot envelope signature is compared by Election Office Staff to your signature history to make sure it’s yours. The guidelines for this process come from the Secretary of State and are problematic. Election Code Article 6 Section 20960 states “the basic presumption (is) that the signature on the ballot envelope is the voter’s signature”.
It then goes on to list numerous ways to make the signature verification. But the Staff also have guidelines on how long they can take on each signature. So the staff uses a “One Stroke Policy” which violates Election Code 15104 that requires multiple points of similarity. The code also states that if a signature is rejected two different Staff members have to agree, “beyond a reasonable doubt”, that the signature is unacceptable. These state policies would seem to enable acceptance vs actual verification.
Ballot privacy requires secure envelopes, but envelopes had holes in them to make it easier for the Staff to see if an envelope was empty. Unfortunately, the holes sometimes revealed the way the voter had voted.
Due to the short prep time for the Recall Election, the Sample Ballots were mailed in the same envelope as the Official Ballot. And many voters voted mistakenly voted their Sample Ballots. All of those ballots had to be transferred by Election Staff to an official ballot paper that can be read by the scanner. This process of ballot duplication adds the potential for human error or mischief.
Adjudication of Ballots
Observers saw large batches of all “No on the Recall” voted ballots. The Staff’s explanation was that a high percentage of “No on the Recall” voters did not vote on part two of the ballot. And that is read by the scanner as an “Undervote”. All of those ballots had to be adjudicated (judged by two Staff members) to discern the voters’ intent which in this case was clear. This again added to the Staff’s workload and adds the potential for human error or mischief.
We did not see or hear about staff supervision, regular reviews, and oversight of the Staff’s work. Supervisors were available to answer questions and additional staff training was carried out when needed. At one point Staff members who are twin brothers were assigned to do Adjudication together which could have removed some of the benefits of having a two-party agreement on voters’ intent. A couple of Staff members were observed eating or dozing at their computers. A Supervisor said that one of them would be retrained and their work reviewed.
Were Observers More or Less Confident After Their Election Observation Experience?
Some Observers gained confidence in the Election Office procedures by observing and taking the tours given by the Staff Supervisors. Tours were a great way to get an understanding of the processes and have questions answered. The Staff was cordial, knowledgeable, and patient. Some observers see potential vulnerabilities as ongoing concerns and want more transparency. Some Observers want regular and wider audits to be able to have more complete confidence in the Elections.
San Mateo County Election Office Staff did a good job running the Recall Election. A 1% Audit of the Recall Election was a success, meaning that the hand and machine ballot counts matched.
Our main concerns going forward are Signature Verification and Ballot Harvesting. Neither one can be changed on the county level or local level, but we can make our concerns known. We’ll be communicating with the Assistant Registrar of Voters about our observations and suggestions.
We are sure that Election Observation is important for us and for the Election Office Staff.
We got to know some of the staff members and saw how seriously they take their jobs We hope to work with the staff to find ways to improve the observation experience and we’ll continue to educate voters and raise their confidence level in the system.