In a time of eroding confidence in the government and other public institutions, we can still rely on the sanctity of a foolproof ballot box.
We say that knowing that our country’s election system has been criticized – and not only by the tinfoil hat crowd – as susceptible to hacking, manipulation and voter fraud. Based on our latest briefing from Registrar of Voters-Assessor-Recorder John Tuteur, who’s been running Napa County elections for 20 years, we’re confident that’s all bunk.
Let’s start with hacking. The machine that tallies our votes is plugged into an electrical outlet in the wall and has no Internet capabilities. You’d might as well try hacking a toaster. Actually make that 7,000 toasters, since that’s how many separate local systems make up our country’s massively decentralized voting system.
Manipulation and voter fraud? Tuteur’s office has counted a million ballots since 1998 and there’s been exactly one case of voter fraud (it was in St. Helena, incidentally, and the perpetrator who tried to vote twice was levied a $4,000 fine).
Voter fraud is more difficult than ever across the state, thanks to the new VoteCal system which, among other things, ensures that people who move from one place to another are taken off the voter rolls in their previous home county. There’s also a conditional voter registration system allowing people to register as late as Election Day, although their ballots will only count if their registration information checks out.
Tuteur is a stickler for details, and he notoriously takes his sweet time to certify election results. But if there’s one public job that merits perfectionism, it’s counting votes.
With evident pride, he detailed how he and his staff scrutinize ballots that the machine considers “overvoted” – like when someone crosses out their vote for Joe Schmo and decides to vote for Joe Blow instead. Tuteur makes sure even those ballots are counted correctly.
He also relishes verifying signatures and addresses – say, those on a recall petition — making sure they match the ones the county has on file.
Counting votes accurately is one of Tuteur’s three main goals: the others are getting eligible voters to register and getting registered voters to vote. He’s taken heat for reducing the number of polling places across the county, but he’s always insisted it’s about increasing turnout.
Sure enough, the rest of California is going in the same direction. Napa County is one of five counties taking part in a pilot program under the 2016 Voters Choice Act, which was enacted by the state Legislature after the disappointingly low turnouts of the 2014 gubernatorial election.
The program involves sending every voter a vote-by-mail ballot. Starting in the June 2018 election, Napa County will have zero polling places. Instead, voters can deposit their ballots in drop boxes placed in secure locations around the county or at vote centers open before and on Election Day. (Ballots may also be mailed, but don’t forget about postage.)
Napa County was already 90 percent vote-by-mail, so this will only be another incremental change in the way we cast our votes. While heading to the polls on Tuesday is a classic piece of Americana that’s hard to let go of, Tuteur’s promotion of vote-by-mail has resulted in election turnouts that are consistently higher than state averages – 82 percent in last November’s presidential election, compared with 75.3 percent statewide.
So grouse all you want about hyperpartisanship and ineffective leaders, but don’t lose faith in our most sacred political process. Our voting system is in good hands.
(This editorial has been corrected to clarify that John Tuteur has been running Napa County elections for 20 years.)