The Napa County grand jury issued a new report this week calling for the county’s registrar of voters to be appointed — not elected — and for a new independent board that would have oversight of the elections process.
The grand jury also wants interim ballot counts to be released between Election Night and the final certified results, as the three-week wait to know the results of the 2012 elections led some residents and candidates to express frustration with Registrar of Voters John Tuteur.
The grand jury monitored the Elections Division’s performance last fall. Its report criticizes aspects of how the division handled citizen complaints, how precincts with polling places were switched to vote-by-mail without public input, and how some residents were delayed in receiving ballot pamphlet.
It found no problems with the accuracy of the polling machines, the handling and counting of ballots, or security measures for maintaining and storing ballots, according to the report.
The report reserved its harshest criticism for Tuteur being an elected official overseeing the Elections Division, and states that it prevents the creation of an independent oversight board. The grand jury asserted that it was the sole independent oversight of county elections.
“The operation of a smooth, responsive election process is essential to a well-functioning democracy,” the report states. “It is almost inconceivable that an office with these most important and challenging responsibilities is not subject to periodic audit and oversight by an independent citizens board charged with that particular responsibility.”
Tuteur holds the registrar of voters position in addition to his duties as assessor, recorder and county clerk.
In an interview Thursday, Tuteur thanked the grand jury, and said its findings prove his office performed well on its biggest test — providing an accurate, secure ballot-counting process.
“On the overall, the report was very positive on the performance of the elections department,” Tuteur said. “That’s what I care most about.”
He issued a preliminary response to the report Wednesday, saying some of the grand jury’s points needed clarification.
He said that to his knowledge Napa County has never had an appointed registrar of voters since its founding in 1850, and 42 of California’s 58 counties elect their registrars of voters.
The grand jury report found that the Elections Division lacks a formal archive for citizen complaints, but Tuteur said he maintains one of phone calls, emails and other correspondence, and replies to each complaint.
On the issue of setting up an independent elections board, he said that’s up for the Board of Supervisors to decide, but doesn’t think California law allows such a board to be anything more than an advisory committee.
Some California counties have these committees, which are typically devoted to ensuring people with special needs are properly served in the elections process, such as people with disabilities or language barriers.
Tuteur said a task force recommended setting up one in Napa County in 2004, but he reviewed that request with county staff and didn’t feel it was warranted because of the county’s small population size.
“We felt we didn’t have voters in populations large enough,” Tuteur said.
No county has an independent committee with oversight or decision-making authority, he said.
Following long lines at polling places in the 2006 mid-term elections, Tuteur said he decided to begin converting polling place precincts, where California law permitted, to vote-by-mail. He said vote-by-mail provides residents an easy, secure means of filling out their ballots.
“That’s what it’s been all about,” Tuteur said. “I didn’t want a big mess on Nov. 2, 2008.”
He said of the 25,000 residents converted to vote-by-mail, he heard from approximately 400 people, and responded to each of them with his reasons for the switch.
“I heard from 400,” Tuteur said. “If you make all decisions based on whose wheel is squeaking the loudest, you never get anywhere.”
Even with an independent advisory board and the Board of Supervisors appointing the registrar of voters, one person would still have the authority to make the decision converting polling places to vote-by-mail, Tuteur said.
“There’s always got to be a person that’s got to do that,” Tuteur said. “I took action. Any good manager is going to have to make the best decisions they can.”
The grand jury report comes as the Board of Supervisors is preparing to make Tuteur’s job duties the subject of a study session in October. Tuteur is up for re-election in 2014, and will run for re-election, he has said.
The board addressed the issue during a meeting in May, with some supervisors expressing desires to see changes implemented in the elections process, although not to the extent of those recommended by the grand jury.
Supervisor Bill Dodd wanted to see the ballot counting expedited, while Supervisor Diane Dillon expressed interest in seeing the registrar of voters become an appointed position.
Supervisor Keith Caldwell cautioned against creating a new department and management position, given the costs the county would incur. Supervisor Mark Luce said having the Board of Supervisors appoint the elections chief would lead to public concern that it was improperly influencing the elections process.
Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said the grand jury report aligns with his view of how to reform elections in Napa County, although he wouldn’t want to see it result in the creation of a stand-alone department. Wagenknecht pressed for the county and the Board of Supervisors to review Tuteur’s position when he took over as chairman of the board in January.
“When it comes back up, I’ll cite the information in the grand jury report,” Wagenknecht said. “I think they got most of it right with this one. They were able to look at it pretty thoroughly.”