Reacting to county residents’ expressed dissatisfaction at the weeks-long wait to learn the final results of the 2012 elections last fall, the Board of Supervisors may decide to shake up the Elections Division.
During the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, the board may decide to pursue stripping elections duties from County Assessor-Recorder-Clerk and Registrar of Voters John Tuteur’s job description, and potentially create a stand-alone department solely devoted to the election process.
Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht showed a desire to re-examine Tuteur’s duties when Wagenknecht took over as chairman of the Napa County board in January. He said he was displeased at the long wait in getting the final results, which weren’t released until Nov. 27, three weeks after polls closed Nov. 6. He also said he disagreed with Tuteur’s decision to convert the vast majority of county precincts to vote-by-mail.
At that time, Wagenknecht said he was unhappy with how the delays have become common practice in Napa County’s election cycles.
“There’s been a great deal of dissatisfaction with some of the having to wait three weeks to hear,” Wagenknecht said in January. “I thought it would be one election, but it turns out this is the game plan.”
Tuteur is an elected official, but the Board of Supervisors has the authority to change the position’s duties. If the position remains an elected one, the board could opt to split up the duties of Assessor, Recorder, Clerk and Registrar of Voters into multiple positions.
The supervisors could also decide to make the registrar of voters job an appointed position, and make the Elections Divisions a new, separate department or shuffle it into an existing county department, such as Information Technology Services.
On Tuesday, the board could offer direction to staff to continue analyzing and pursuing the changes, or to maintain the status quo, said Helene Franchi, a principal management analyst in the County Executive Office.
“The only intention is to get board direction on whether they want that level of detail,” Franchi said.
The county last examined this issue in 2009, after the 2008 presidential election. Staff recommended keeping elections within the Assessor-Recorder-Clerk’s purview, and said carving out the Elections Division into a separate department would cost the county an extra $115,347 because it would need a new registrar of voters.
Keeping elections part of a larger department also offers an economy of scale, but the staff reports note that having an appointed registrar would offer more performance accountability.
Franchi said staff haven’t calculated what the additional cost would be in 2013.
The newest staff report for Tuesday’s meeting also questions the advantages of making elections a separate department, as it would lack support staff for budgeting and purchasing, and would need a new manager. But unlike 2009, the new report stops short of a recommendation.
Tuteur said he’ll be present at Tuesday’s meeting, but only to answer questions the supervisors may have. He defended his office’s performance during the last election cycle.
Tuteur said Wagenknecht’s issues with the Elections Divisions are a result of policy decisions he has made — to convert precincts to vote-by-mail and to take longer to count the ballots — and don’t reflect on the staff overall.
“As an independently elected official, I respect the authority of the board and their ability to make changes if they so desire,” Tuteur said. “I have to make the best decisions for the accuracy and integrity of the elections processes.”
On converting precincts to vote-by-mail, Tuteur said Napa County is part of a much broader — and growing — trend in California and nationally.
“Vote-by-mail seems to be the wave of the future, not just for California,” Tuteur said.
Napa County had 57,672 voters cast ballots in the November election last year, out of 72,592 registered. On Election Night Nov. 6, the Elections Division had tallied 32,715 ballots and released preliminary results, but waited three weeks to release the results of the remaining 24,957 ballots.
The final ballots didn’t change the results of any of the closely contested races, such as the mayoral and City Council races in Calistoga or the District 2 contest for the Board of Supervisors.
Tuteur questioned the value of putting out more updates between Election Night and when the vote count is certified.
“If we were to bring out daily updates, that still doesn’t mean anything’s done until it’s done,” Tuteur said.
As for increasing the number of people counting ballots as a way to count them quicker, he said that increases the chances for errors in counting or in losing ballots.
“Throwing more people at it doesn’t help,” Tuteur said. “We’re going to be more accurate with our regular staff.”
Tuteur also defended his practice of waiting several days after Election Night to resume counting. He said it’s best to give staff and the volunteers time off after the long hours they worked in the month leading up to Nov. 6.
“You need to take a breath,” Tuteur said. “They’re working extra hard all day long.”