A Vote by Mail ballot collection box at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters in Oakland on Oct. 27, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
It was mid-morning on Election Day when Julie Mendel, a poll worker at a voting location at Mills College in Oakland, realized that something had gone horribly wrong.
A voter had approached her with a printout from a ballot-marking device, a machine that spits out a voter's choices onto a piece of paper (the voter's ballot) after they have made their selections on a touchscreen. The voter then submits the ballot into a collection bag.
For more than three days of voting, Mendel and her fellow poll workers had told voters that the piece of paper was a receipt, with the actual votes submitted electronically though the machine. She had heard the guidance from a higher-ranking poll worker at the location, and never questioned it until she looked closely at the piece of paper the man was showing her. It read 'Official Ballot.'
"We felt really awful just about the possibility that we had told these people to walk away with their votes uncast," said Mendel.
For the rest of the day, Mendel and other poll workers scrambled to contact the Alameda County Registrar of Voters Office, trying in vain to get clear guidance and help correcting their error.
"Nobody was like, 'This is really concerning, I'm going to try to figure out how to solve this problem and get back to you,' or, 'I'm going to send an employee to the site to talk to you and figure out what's going on,' " Mendel remembered. "It was like realizing we had made this giant mistake and feeling incredibly alone in trying to handle it."
The lost votes at the Mills College location (the registrar estimates as many as 160 voters may have inadvertently taken their ballots home) were not the only issue that emerged in Alameda County's administration of this year's election. And more than a month after the election, the county's Board of Supervisors has been virtually silent in response to the issues.
Problems in 2020 'More Systemic and Significant'
Voting rights advocates have slammed the county for a delay in setting up vote-by-mail drop boxes, and for failing to post sample ballots in multiple languages, as required by law.
"We have seen issues off and on in past election cycles, but they really came to a head this cycle and were more systemic and significant than we've seen previously," said Julia Marks, voting rights attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus.
The 2020 election provided a host of novel challenges for California counties and their election workers, who implemented changes to the voting process on a short timetable in the midst of a pandemic — with levels of turnout not matched in decades.
But the issues in Alameda County raise questions about the management of the registrar's office, and whether the state's seventh-largest county should continue to task their top elections official with simultaneously running the county's information technology department.
"There is no other county in California that is the size of Alameda County that does not have someone who is a full time registrar of voters," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "It's a big job, and a county the size of Alameda has a lot of voters and many diverse voters whose needs they need to address."
Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Poll Workers at Mills College 'Desperate for Support'
After a coalition of voting rights groups first raised the issues at the Mills College voting location, Dupuis said in a statement that poll workers should have known that the touchscreen printouts were not receipts, and that by Nov. 13, the county had tracked down 22 of the ballots.
Dupuis said the county's poll worker helpline "was up and running for on-the -spot poll worker questions and problem solving."
But poll workers at the Mills College location said it was difficult to get a clear answer to their questions or instructions on how to rectify the errors they had made.
"As we started to realize that something wasn't right, we were desperate for support and for help," said Claire Calderón, another poll worker at the site.
Calderón said it took multiple calls to determine whether the printouts were, in fact, ballots. And when she asked what could be done to track down the votes, she says she was told to "sit on her hands" and let her team captain take the blame.
"It was easily something like 70-75% Black and elderly folks at our voting location," Calderón said. "It will go down as one of the most haunting experiences of my life, realizing that I had unintentionally participated in voter disenfranchisement and that I had seen close up the apathy with which voters' votes were treated."
Problems With Drop Boxes, Language Access
In a letter to the registrar of voters, a coalition of voting rights groups that included the ACLU, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus and Oakland Rising claimed that Alameda County's election troubles started before Election Day.
The county was late in setting up 38 of the more than 60 vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes it was required to provide. Some neighborhoods lacked drop boxes for days after the early voting period began. The registrar said the delay was a result of the drop box vendor and supplier getting deluged by orders.
The letter also charged the registrar with failing to provide ballot materials for voters with limited English proficiency. Under state law, the county is required to post copies of ballots, called facsimile ballots, in languages prevalent in the community.
"There are more than 200,000 limited-English proficient people in Alameda County," Marks said. "And so having adequate language assistance is really important to make sure we're not disenfranchising people who live here."
During the first few days of early voting, Alameda County posted notices that the facsimile ballots were available on demand, but did not post the actual facsimile ballots, citing a burden in printing thousands of pages for each of the county's 100 voting locations.
Like the poll workers at Mills College, voting advocates say it was difficult to get a response from county officials to address the problem.
"If there is an election actively underway, there needs to be extremely responsive communication and problem solving from the county," said Marks.
Language access issues have plagued Alameda County in past elections: The U.S. Department of Justice sued the county in 2011 for violating the rights of Spanish-, Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking voters. The suit resulted in a consent decree that required federal monitors to supervise voting in subsequent elections. A similar Justice Department suit against the county in the 1990's also resulted in language assistance mandates.
In their letter to the registrar after this fall's election, voting rights organizations said "advocates have long been concerned about your office’s lack of preparedness and transparency regarding how Alameda County prepares for elections."
Unique Management of Elections Department
The county's election management structure dates back to 2006, when longtime IT head Dave MacDonald was appointed acting registrar by the Board of Supervisors, after the departure of the county's previous election chief.
The Oakland Tribune reported at the time that MacDonald was only slated to hold both roles temporarily, and that a permanent registrar was to be appointed "before the November  election."
Fourteen years later, Alameda still tasks one official to run the county's elections department as well as its technology support division.
Some counties, such as Los Angeles, consolidate record-keeping responsibilities with the registrar's job. But Alameda is the only county of its size in California with a registrar in charge of another department, and Dupuis is the only dual-department head in Alameda County.
Dupuis has held those roles since 2012 — before that, as chief technology officer, he was credited with developing the county's first mobile app and transitioning the county's website to the smartphone era.
In 2019, he told TechWire, a trade website for government technology news, that technology is a key component of the county's voter outreach programs.
"As the ROV/CIO I can bring an understanding of both professions together," Dupuis said.
But election administration has become more complex in California. In 2020, election officials were tasked with sending every voter a mail ballot while still operating in-person voting sites — a management responsibility akin to "putting on a war," said Alexander, with the California Voter Foundation.
"I do think that it's important for the person who is managing elections in a county the size of Alameda to have that as their number one job and their only job," Alexander said.
Any changes to Alameda County's current elections leadership would come from the Board of Supervisors.
"Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to make sure that the personnel that they've put in charge of elections for their voters in the county have the support and the staffing and the resources that they need to do the job to the voters' expectations," Alexander added.
None of Alameda County's five supervisors agreed to an interview for this story.
In a statement, Supervisor Keith Carson said that the board met with Dupuis in mid-November to review and discuss the election in a closed session, "because of the threat of litigation."
Among the list of requests from voting rights organizations is an ask for more communication between the registrar and voting rights groups in the lead-up to the election.
"Having a conversation between the registrar and the board behind closed doors can be a first step," said Marks. "But there has to be something that the public can see because the registrar is accountable to everyone in Alameda County, and we all want to be assured that this won't happen again."