June 3, 2012 - Santa Clara County's new elections chief prepared for first major election
Paper: Alameda Times-Star (CA)
Title: Santa Clara County's new elections chief prepared for first major election
Date: June 3, 2012
Author: Tracy Seipel, Mercury News
If Tuesday's primary election goes well, Santa Clara County's new elections chief, Barry Garner, will credit his staff and his legion of volunteers -- including relay teams of 256 Kiwanis Club members he's counting on to speedily deliver ballots for tallying.
But like any veteran elections official, Garner is also prepared for the unexpected. Since arriving from Georgia seven months ago, the new registrar of voters has installed new procedures, training and guidelines. Garner has no intention of repeating the kind of lapses that occurred under his predecessor, whose tenure is remembered more for gaffes than grand slams.
"The way you practice is the way you play," Garner said, "and I think we have practiced and gone through and done all scenarios. You always have butterflies and get nervous, but I've done this a time or two in other places. We'll have to see the outcome on Tuesday. I feel comfortable.''
His proving ground is paved with a to-do list from County Executive Jeff Smith, who hired the 44-year-old in November. Since then, Garner has analyzed the voter registrar office's policies and procedures and enforced a number of changes.
"We have learned from things in the past and put corrective measures in place,'' said Garner, who has more than 18 years in senior level elections management positions. Most recently, he was director of registration and elections operations for Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta and 13 other cities with a total population of 921,000.
"We're not making the same past mistakes again," he said with confidence.
For example, Garner has made sure all of the office's procedures are written in a single manual, along with helpful practices that had never been formally recorded.
"We have a lot of experienced people, but a lot of it is in their heads,'' Garner said. But if any valued staffer leaves, that institutional knowledge could be forever lost.
The singular manual will remain a work in progress.
"It will be lessons learned, what we did right or wrong -- to make sure that the things we did right we'll enhance and the things we did wrong we'll improve on,'' he said.
Garner also emphasized training. For the first time, every person who works for the office -- all 41 full-time and 121 part-time workers -- knows how to run a polling place. (As always, about 4,000 volunteer poll workers also have received training.)
"You can't work an election until you know how to run a precinct,'' he said. "So if there is a major issue on Election Day, I have 121 people I can pull from. That's my insurance policy.''
While focusing on producing a fair and accurate election process, Garner said he's also trying to ensure a quick turnaround of the vote count Tuesday night. That has been hampered by the county's outdated voting system, which, he notes, requires all ballots to be scanned at the registrar 's office instead of at the precincts.
Took big a risk
"Barry is doing the best with what he's got,'' said county Supervisor Liz Kniss, who has loudly complained over the years about a series of mishaps at the registrar 's office, including the long delay in 2004 by a count of absentee ballots. In 2008, the registrar ran out of Democratic ballots in the presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
In 2010, smudges on the absentee ballots, blamed on a contractor, required the registrar 's office to erase the marks so they could be electronically counted. In March, during a test printing of ballots, the smudges surfaced again. So Garner got permission to replace the contractor.
"It was a risky move, so close to the election," Garner said, "but it was the right thing to do based on the evidence I saw."
He is tackling the problem of sluggish ballot counting on Election Night by using courier teams of Kiwanis Club members to drive the ballots from 256 of the county's 695 polling places straight to the registrar 's headquarters on Berger Drive in San Jose after polls close at 8 p.m. In past elections, all ballots were driven to 18 centers, where they were collected and then driven to the headquarters. Now, there will be only 10 collection centers.
"It should improve efficiency and save at least 45 minutes,'' Garner said.
Since May 24, his staff has tallied 127,761 absentee ballots, or 23.39 percent of the total number of mail-in ballots sent to voters. The absentee ballot results will start to be posted on the registrar 's website at 8:01 p.m. Tuesday, Garner said.
Meantime, he's crossing his fingers that all goes well Election Night. So is Kniss.
"I would like to get through one election without some real hiccups,'' the supervisor said. "I'm cautiously optimistic.''
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of registered voters in Santa Clara County
Number of voters who have received absentee (mail-in) ballots
Number of absentee ballots received and scanned by Saturday
Ballots mailed after May 30 are not guaranteed to reach the registrar 's office.
Source: Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters and U.S. Postal Service
WHERE TO DROP OFF ABSENTEE BALLOTS
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, but voters on Monday and Tuesday can drop off their absentee ballots during normal business hours at designated ballot boxes at their individual City Halls and at the Santa Clara County Government Center at 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose.
A 24-hour drop-off box also is located at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters office at 1555 Berger Drive, San Jose.
Drop-off ballots do not require postage.
From 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, voters also can use new drive-through ballot drop-off locations in:
MILPITAS: McCarthy Ranch Marketplace parking lot next to Interstate 880, 301 Ranch Drive
MORGAN HILL: Morgan Hill VTA Park & Ride near Hale Avenue, 169 Main Ave.
PALO ALTO: Mayfield Soccer Complex on Page Mill Road and El Camino Real, 2700 block of El Camino Real
SAN JOSE: Eastridge Mall VTA Park & Ride at Capitol Expressway and Eastridge Loop near Tully Road
SARATOGA: Westgate Mall Shopping Center parking lot on Hamilton Avenue side, 1600 Saratoga Ave.
Source: Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Go to or call toll-free to 1-866-430-VOTE (8683) between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.
Record Number: 20775275
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