May 29, 2007 - Local governments outsource elections that puzzle voters
Paper: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Title: Local governments outsource elections that puzzle voters
Date: May 29, 2007
Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, was interviewed a few years back about an upcoming election and complained about the sheer size of the ballot and how -- and why -- California voters seem to vote on every nitpicking little thing.
As a Sacramento County resident, she said, she would have to vote for 22 different elected representatives at the local and state level.
"I mean, what the heck is the mosquito abatement district and why should we care about this?" she asked. After hearing the interview on air, her father, a retired Culver City Council member, called her to say he was a member of the Los Angeles County Mosquito Abatement District's board of directors.
Still, voters across the state are asking the same question Alexander did just about every time they look at their ballots. And this month, thousands of Alameda County property owners have been scratching their heads over not only what they are deciding in a mail election -- but who is counting the votes.
Some of them have called the county elections department, which confirms that it is not counting the ballots for the "Vector and Disease Control Assessment" proposed by the county's Vector Control Services District.
The ballots have an unusual return address -- to an accounting firm in Fremont that is, indeed, tallying the results in July.
For the record, the special district, which controls rodent and insect infestation for every city in the county except Fremont and Emeryville, is asking county property owners for a $4.08 annual increase in their property taxes.
It is the latest mail ballot being handled by a private firm, SCI Consulting of Fairfield, which sent the mail ballots to more than 400,000 property owners across the county. If the measure is approved, property owners would pay a little more than $11 a year, per parcel, for service.
Believe it or not, the practice of hiring outside civil engineers, particularly for specialized projects like rodent infestation and mosquito abatement, is close to 100 years old and an established procedure.
What's relatively new are the one-stop firms such as SCI that public agencies can hire to produce everything from reports to vote tabulation.
Larry Tramutola, an Oakland-based political consultant and public agency adviser, has managed similar elections for special districts in west Contra Costa County and smaller districts in Northern California.
Votes in special districts such as vector control and mosquito abatement are conducted in a significantly different manner than a public election. In these cases, votes are weighted according to the amount of property owned, and not the actual vote. In other words, the vote of a rancher who pays an assessment on 150 acres of land carries more weight than one from the owner of a single-family home built on a half-acre parcel.
"It's definitely a big contract and I can understand people saying, 'Isn't this work the government should do?' But it really has nothing to do with registered voters. It's property owners," said John Bliss, a civil engineer at SCI.
In the past few years, the company has performed the same task for nearly 30 California mosquito districts -- about 95 percent of the districts in the state, he added.
In less-populated places, like Lassen County, the company has managed special district elections because the rural government's staff lacks the resources to pull it off on their own.
In Alameda County, Fremont certified public accountant C.G. Uhlenberg is handling the ballot count as a subcontractor to SCI. Of the more than 400,000 ballots mailed out, the accounting firm expects to receive about one-fourth of them back, said Jeff Ira, a partner in the firm who heads its vote-tabulation service.
"We do a number of ballots, 15 or 20 in last couple of years alone, and a lot of them have been for vector control. In some cases, special elections were held to expand pest control efforts in previously unserved areas," he said. "Once west Nile (virus) hit, that's when things really took off."
The firm will start counting the ballots in mid-July, helping carry out an election the county registrar of voters office wouldn't normally be expected to handle.
Ballots are placed into three categories -- yes, no and a pile for ballots not complete or filled out incorrectly, Ira said. During the voting period, which ends July 5, property owners who sent their ballots can change their minds, request that new ballots be mailed to them and vote again, he added.
"I've had situations where a husband and wife don't agree and the wife called me to ask that their vote be split," he said.
With all the advancements made in the U.S. election process, from electronic voting machines to mail balloting, Alexander of the statewide voter group warns of handing over too much authority to private interests in pursuit of a fair and accurate outcome for a very public process.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it reflected the trend toward more special districts in general, but whenever you have a private company managing a public election, there needs to be a greater degree of public accountability, especially when it comes to counting the votes," she said.
Author: Chip Johnson
Section: BAY AREA
Column: CHIP JOHNSON
(c) San Francisco Chronicle 2007