Voting Rights Advocates Take Aim at Alameda Registrar After 'Devastating Errors' in 2020 Election

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A voter check-in tent at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters on Oct. 27, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Voting rights advocates lobbed criticisms at the top elections official in Alameda County, and the county's five-member board of supervisors, during a Tuesday hearing reviewing the 2020 election.

For the first time since a series of issues plagued the county in the administration of the November election, Alameda County Registrar Tim Dupuis spoke publicly before the board to defend his office. He also detailed his plans to improve the voting process before the county is set to hold multiple elections later this year.

But voting rights attorneys at the hearing expressed little confidence in the county's elections leadership after an election in which ballots were inadvertently discarded, ballot language requirements were flouted and advocates struggled to communicate with the registrar's office.

“I am sorry to say that I have never felt that this office and its leadership meet the standards set by the elections officials around the rest of California," Jonathan Mehta Stein, executive director of California Common Cause, told the board. "I felt this way before the devastating errors in the November 2020 elections."

More on Alameda County voting issues

Dupuis reminded supervisors that his office had to implement changes in the voting process amid the COVID-19 pandemic while facing historic levels of voter turnout. Only after a fiery public comment from Stein did supervisors vow to revisit the issue before future elections.

"The pandemic hit right as we were finishing the [March 2020] primary, and to layer [high turnout] on top of it makes this one of the most historic November elections we’ve seen in this county," said Dupuis. "Something of this scale always has opportunities for improvement."

Helen Hutchison, a board member and former president of the League of Women Voters of California, said Alameda was hardly alone among counties dealing with unique circumstances.

"All elections officials in California were under the same pressures as Alameda County in this November election, but no other county had such a high number of reported problems," she said.

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The election issues first cropped up when voting began in October. The county was late in setting up the majority of the 60 drop boxes it used to collect mail ballots, citing a delay from a vendor.

Voting rights advocates have been especially critical of the county's failure to meet language access requirements for limited English proficient voters. By law, voting sites must display sample ballots in locally prevalent languages.

A 2014 estimate from The Greenlining Insitute found that Alameda County has more than 117,000 limited-English proficient citizens of voting age. Similar language access failures in the past have landed the county under consent decrees with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Attorneys for the ACLU and Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus said that many voting sites in Alameda County did not post such sample ballots, known as facsimile ballots, or make them available in looseleaf form. And poll workers at some sites did not know about the sample ballot requirements, the attorneys say.

Dupuis said the county's switch to countywide voting, in which voters can cast their ballot at any location rather than being assigned to a specific polling place, made the printing requirement "not practical."

"We would have had to print out at least 10,000 facsimile ballots for all 100 of our locations, which would be confusing to our voters [and] would also be difficult to manage," he said.

Advocates countered that the county could have at least posted a sample ballot for each language, which they only did after prodding from voting rights lawyers, or set up a designated area in the voting location with sample ballot information.

The registrar's process for training poll workers was also questioned, specifically in an incident that voting rights advocates said led to the disenfranchisement of more than 100 voters who left a Mills College polling place with their ballot in hand.

For more than three days, poll workers at the site mistakenly told voters that the ballots they printed from touchscreen machines were receipts.

"We don’t know precisely how that came across," said Dupuis, who said the county was able to track down and process 35 of the estimated 160 ballots taken home by voters.

Going forward, the registrar committed to adding signage, reminding voters that the printout is their ballot, along with a prompt on the touchscreen to deposit the printed ballot into a trolley.

Poll workers at the location said they were not properly trained and that the registrar's office was not responsive to their requests for help.

"This is unacceptable," said Claire Calderón, one of the Mills College poll workers at the site who spoke at Tuesday's hearing. "We were volunteers with inadequate training who reached out repeatedly for help navigating brand new systems, and we were repeatedly dismissed."

Following the presentation, supervisors were complimentary of Dupuis, and none of the supervisors questioned the registrar about the issues raised by advocates.

"I'm highly confident that you're running a great program," said Supervisor David Haubert.

Moments later, Mehta Stein, of California Common Cause, blasted the board during his public comment.

"I cannot help but notice that none of the supervisors today used their opportunity after the presentation to address the Mills College situation or to speak up for disenfranchised constituents," he said.

Supervisors Keith Carson and Nate Miley responded that the board's Personnel, Administration and Legislation committee could consider further action before the county's next election, a June 29 primary for the vacant 18th Assembly District.

And while they recommended forming a working group of county officials and voting rights advocates, no formal action was taken.

"We do take these matters very seriously," said Miley. "This is the first time we’ve had public condemnation of this nature.”

The county will also have to prepare for a potential runoff in the AD 18 race, along with a gubernatorial recall election and an Alameda County Employees' Retirement Association election later this year.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the turn that it took, the tone toward the end of the meeting," said ACLU voting rights attorney Christina Fletes-Romo, in an interview after the hearing. "We want to have a collaborative relationship with this registrar."

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