California counties face varying issues in improving elections with technology

Title: California counties face varying issues in improving elections with technology
Source: California Forward
Date: July 9, 2013
By: Catherine Shieh

California is a regional network of 58 counties, all with varying needs and levels of tax dollars at their disposal. Smaller counties typically have less money, which isn’t necessarily rocket science, but what they deal with as a result and the way in which they cope differ depending on what else is available to them through their community.

For example, San Francisco as a city or county has not only a vast amount of resources at its disposal, but a brain trust in the public sector and money to lure those people into the public sphere. Not many cities or counties can boast having a Chief Technology Officer.

So when it comes to the intersection between elections (which historically have dismal participation levels in non-national, off-year cycles), and technology, the smaller counties have a wide range of issues and ways in which they cope with them. As the state bolsters online voting registration and continues to emphasize integrating technology into the electoral process as a means of boosting participation and instilling more public trust in the process, these issues can either be a blessing or a curse.

“It is much more difficult when you don’t have an IT director in a county such as, which usually occurs in small rural counties,” said Cathy Allen, President of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials and the registrar for Shasta County. 

“There can’t just be a one-time funding for a software package. It’s harder than it looks,” Allen said, implying that simply installing new software is no good if there is no one to run and maintain it. Sometimes no money is the only barrier to better online data disclosure for voters. Allen's county has one, but others are certainly not so lucky.

San Benito is another rural county with limited funds and resources. Joe Paul Gonzalez, the County Clerk-Auditor-Recorder, saw his staff shrink from ten to three due to budget constraints. But the shortfall became a blessing as he overhauled his office to be more efficient through technology and successfully recruited volunteers from the local community college for cost-saving voter outreach. Even his wife joined the ranks to assist the website development. It did cost the county, but the transition has resulted in improved elections maintenance and more budget flexibility in the long run.

The San Benito County Registrar of Voters’ site now features easy-to-find forms, an open access portal and explicit information on campaign finance. This is an example of a county making lemonade of out lemons and making all disclosure statements readily available and generally improving their website in the face of budget constraints.

As for the future, Gonzalez would like to see the state and other counties share their wisdom across political borders. There are clear online benefits: filing is now online and streamlined and in turn public data is available with just a few mouse clicks. 

“Information is only [available] for those who know what to look for,” Gonzalez cautioned. He hopes to see a long term road to reform for utilizing design and technology to showcase easily digestible data for the public. 

With San Benito County Registrar’s success story in mind, it is important to recognize the complexities behind a comprehensive approach to protecting our right to vote in this state. We need leaders to take on California’s voting and elections challenges by adopting effective strategies that incorporate both urban and rural challenges in mind. Some of these resources and outside the box methods, such as tapping into the community, are obviously not available to every county, but it is an inspiring story nonetheless.

California Forward has been working with like minded groups on the Future of California Elections (FOCE) to examine and address the unique challenges facing the State of California’s election system. We applaud the San Benito County Registrar and his staff working to combat distrust in government and get more Californians engaged and participating in our democracy.