Merced County Times Newspaper
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After new update, county leaders optimistic about elections integrity

Suspicions remain about cheating before ballots reach the tabulators

Members of the Merced County Board of Supervisors appeared upbeat after listening to their appointed Registrar of Voters provide an update on recent progress made within the Elections Department and its ability to conduct elections with fairness, transparency, accuracy, and according to the law.

Also during their meeting on Tuesday, the board unanimously approved an intra-departmental budget transfer of $550,000 to upgrade the county’s voting system tabulators.

Specifically, most of the money will be used to purchase 26 new “DS300” poll place scanner/tabulators (there are two located at every Voter Assistance Center across the county), along with two “DS950” high-speed scanner/tabulators for the main Elections Warehouse.

“These sophisticated machines will be replacing our current current scanners and tabulators, and represent a giant leap forward in the ability to leverage technology, and to accurately, efficiently, and transparently conduct elections in this county,” said Mel Levey, the registrar of voters. “These machines are the latest in scanning technology from ES&S — a vendor and partner that we’ve had great success with over the years. While our current equipment has performed admirably, these upgraded machines include additional security features, more accurate, integrated software, and increased capacity.”

Levey — a West Point grad, war veteran and corporate executive who just started in January — also detailed how the Elections Department is preparing for next year’s major elections with new training, high-tech GIS data systems and a comprehensive review of boundaries and voter locations in up-to-date district and precinct maps.

These new efforts come on the heels of controversy. Last year’s gubernatorial election was blemished by a county mishap that led to errors on ballots that were sent to voters in newly redrawn districts.

“Election integrity is the heart and soul of the United States and our democracy, and I appreciate where you have taken it four steps further,” Supervisor Daron McDaniel told Levey. “We needed to gain that integrity back here in Merced County.”

Supervisor Scott Silveira said he believed that last year’s election challenges hurt the reputation of the Registrar of Voters Office, as well as people’s confidence in elections.

“We’ve done some homework on that,” he said, “and did some self-reflecting, and now we’re in a place where I’m a lot more comfortable with it, and just restoring that confidence in the public in the elections that will start up here next March.”

While the board praised Levey’s lead on the rapid new improvements, a majority of members also pointed out that they continue to hear concerns among constituents about local election integrity.

And two board members suggested they had full confidence in the ballot process ONLY after ballots are received by county officials or systems.

“Once it gets to us, I know that it’s all top-notch and above board,” Silveira commented. “What happens before it gets to us, is a different story.”

Supervisors Lloyd Pareira asked Levey to detail and confirm that ballots scanned by tabulators at Voting Assistance Centers were verified, counted, secured, and otherwise free of interference before being transported to the Elections Warehouse. He said he asked not only for himself, but for others as well.

“People ask me, well, ‘How much confidence do you have in your system?’ Right? And I tell ’em, ‘Once the ballot gets to the county, I have extreme confidence in it. What happens before that, I’m very suspect.’ In fact, I had a person tell me [about cheating going on], and unfortunately, I didn’t get it videotaped. Anyways, I thought those who might be watching this, and thinking of ways to gain the system, can know that the system is just as complete and full there [Voting Assistance Centers] as it is once the ballot comes in [to the warehouse].”

In his presentation to the board, Levey said he has spent the last four months working with his Elections team members (He refers to them as “rock stars”) and building staff positions and prioritizing expertise. Every full-time vacancy in the department has been filled, and among the new hires is an experienced cyber-security and IT expert.

“The infusion of new talent will soon give the department a level of operational capacity that it simply has not had before.”

A new emphasis on training, according to Levey, has created weekly sessions, including extensive time on upgraded equipment with the assistance of vendors.

They’ve also created what is being called a Data and Mapping Center within the department to provide continuous in-house capability to integrate, analyze and apply GIS (Geographic Information System) into the county’s election mapping needs.

“As you know, these are no-fail tasks,” Levey pointed out. “To ensure complete accuracy and confidence in maps, boundaries and precincts, the Registrar of Voters and the Elections Department has undertaken a complete review of all district boundary and precinct lines in Merced County.

“We drilled down to each parcel, and even further, to make sure we found any areas that need to be addressed. We are now in the process of adjudicating and fixing those discrepancies. In most cases they are minor tweaks to adjust boundary lines to more fully incorporate parcels or tax rate area information. Once this first phase is complete, in the next couple of weeks, every district will be able to recertify their maps using not just paper maps, but the latest in digital technology.”

Levey said a second phase in the update process will be a comprehensive review of all precinct lines.

“At the end of this phase in the next several weeks, all voters will be aligned in their correct precincts and in their correct districts,” he said. “At that point, I will have full confidence that we are ready to execute and administer elections accurately. But we are not stopping there. Phase 3 of this project will see us convert voter location data to a ‘single-point address convention’ in connection with our GIS data. This will allow us to become even more precise with our mapping, and enable us to use more tools to correctly precinct our voters, and check and re-check our voter rolls for accuracy.”

Phase 4, Levey said, would be dedicated to continuous maintenance of maps, voter locations, and updating voter information.

The Elections Department has also acquired six more secure ballot “drop-off” boxes to be placed in “underserved locations” in the county — added to the dozen locations already established in previous elections.

In other news …

• The passport processing center in the Elections Department of the County Administration Building in Merced is setting up new photo (portrait) equipment in the coming weeks to make the passport application process a “truly one-stop experience.”

Appointment times have also been reduced from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, doubling the center’s capacity to process paperwork.

• Last but not least, the county has hired a new director of Community and Economic Development. His name is Steven C. Maxey, and he was hired after what county leaders call an extensive recruitment process.

Maxey has more than a decade of experience leading creative and high-performing teams in land use planning, economic development, transportation planning and engineering, and building. He has worked at the county before, serving six years as a deputy director of Community and Economic Development. Most currently, however, Maxey worked as the owner and founder of Confluence Planning and Development.

His official annual salary is listed as $176,467.

Maxey fills a vacancy left by Mark Hendrickson, who was promoted recently to the position of assistant county executive officer.

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