If you are tangled up and stuck in the nation’s non-stop, 24-hour, cable news cycle — God help you.
What’s probably cemented in your mind is that the upcoming 2020 election season will be the most significant one of our lifetime, and that the future of America, as we know it, is at stake.
And you are still hearing reverberations of cyber security fears from the 2016 presidential election, and the steady drumbeat of “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
As Congress returned to Washington this week, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said “protecting our elections” is one of the top priorities for legislators.
Nevertheless, what we like to do here at the County Times is local news for local readers. So we ask: What is Merced County doing to prepare for the March 3, 2020 Presidential Primary Election?
For the answer, we went straight to the top election official in the region: Barbara J. Levey, the county’s Registrar of Voters.
“It’s going to be a challenge — for voters and for us,” she said. “It’s going to be a challenge all the way around.”
Levey has been the registrar since 2012, but she also heads up the offices of the County Assessor, Clerk and Recorder. The 2020 election season is looking like the biggest one she has dealt with so far. There is currently a record high of more than 101,000 registered voters in the county, and that number is expected to swell leading up to the March primary.
“For some time, the majority of my day has been spent on elections,” Levey said. “Legislation has been constantly changing. There is so much going on. I’m looking at financial impacts, staffing impacts, and getting voter information out.”
The main thing Levey wants local residents to know is: Be prepared.
“Make sure you are registered. Make sure you are registered the way you want to be — with the party you want to be identified with. And make sure your signature is up-to-date with what’s on the record.”
Voter turnout for a spring primary is usually significantly lower that the General Election in November. But this primary could be different considering the number of registered voters, a super hyped-up presidential contest, and the fact that it’s our first March primary since 2004 — making California a little more relevant on the national scene, particularly for Democrat presidential hopefuls.
The March 3 election is a Party Preference election. This means your ballot may be different than the ballot of someone who doesn’t share your political views — at least when it comes down to who should serve in the White House. In the 2016 presidential primary, there were around 80 different ballot types. Yes, it can be confusing, and it all depends.
Political parties may choose to have a closed presidential primary where only voters registered with that party may vote for the party’s nominee. For example, in the 2016 primary, the Republican party only allowed voters who were registered Republican to vote on the Republican presidential candidates. All other registered voters, including those who were registered as No Party Preference, were not eligible to vote on the GOP candidates. Thus, if a voter was registered with a party OTHER THAN Republican but wanted to vote for a Republican presidential candidate, that voter had to re-register as a Republican prior to the registration cutoff date.
Alternatively, a qualified political party may also choose to hold a modified-closed presidential primary. If the qualified political party chooses this type of primary then they can allow voters who did not state a party preference (No Party Preference voters) to ‘crossover’ and vote for that party’s presidential nominee. For example, in the 2016 primary the Democratic, American Independent and Libertarian parties each allowed the registered No Party Preference voters to crossover and participate in selecting their candidate.
Think about this: There are about 26,000 No Party Preference voters currently registered in the county.
In preparation for the March election, the Registrar of Voters office will be doing outreach, using media, the county’s website and Facebook pages, and radio announcements, to inform voters of the restrictions regarding the party preference election. Additionally, they will be reaching out to voters directly by mailers, well ahead of the election, to request that they verify their registration, including their political party or their No Party Preference selection.
This is very important, Levey said, especially considering some people only vote in presidential elections, and they sometimes forget to update their registration status.
Conditional Voter Registration
Traditionally, the opportunity to register to vote for any given election ended 15 days prior to the election (Feb. 17). However, legislation enacted last year provides that eligible voters who are not yet registered to vote can complete a Conditional Voter Registration (CVR) and vote beginning approximately two weeks before Election Day through Election Day. The CVR must be obtained from and completed at the County Elections office or at one of the Merced County Vote Centers that will be open on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday immediately prior to the March 3 primary. They also will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Remember, if you register early, you can avoid waiting in lines on Election Day.
So what about all the talk about potential attacks on America’s voting systems? Do we here in little ol’ Merced County have to be worried?
“We are being told daily that we are potential targets for cyber attacks,” Levey said. “Officials and families are targets. This is a serious concern.”
The Registrar of Voters, along with the Merced County Information Technologies Manager, is actively collaborating with multiple federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that local voters can register to vote, and vote, with confidence.
While there is no evidence of any cyber interference in prior elections — ever — Levey pointed out that cybersecurity threats are now part of the “new normal.”
A few of the many local actions taken include steps to protect infrastructure, risk assessments and on-going training. The county has developed active partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the California Office of Emergency Services, the California Secretary of State, as well as some specific information sharing and analysis centers.
“You hear about a number of states discussing or demanding they go back to paper ballots,” Levey said, “but California is already doing paper ballots. We have an audit trail for every election we do. It is verifiable. We have canvass procedures that verify everything. I feel like we are ahead of a lot of these states because we already have many of the checks and balances, and the paper trail in place.”
Merced County’s voting systems had never been compromised, Levey stresses. The voting systems are not connected to the Internet. The tabulators are not connected to the Internet. We have been forward-thinking and proactive to protect our equipment and our various levels of security.”
With regard to the so-called threat of “Russian interference,” Levey explained: “Some of that was about putting out bad information, trying to keep people from going to the polls; or bad information about a candidate or a party, to try and sway things. It was about mass disinformation rather than attacking the process itself.”
“It’s democracy,” Levey said. “We have to do it well.”
So all of the mailings, the organization, and the outreach costs money. And it all comes from the county’s General Fund. Of course, there are election fees from candidates, cities, school districts, and voting data requests, but revenue from those sources are considered only a drop in the bucket.
Levey says she also has eight full-time employees who work year round, and she will bring in about 30 to 40 Extra Help workers as the elections near. The county expects to have about 725 poll workers on Election Day.
There’s about $1.4 million in this year’s budget for elections, not including full-time staff and day-to-day operations. The November 2020 election will be under the 2020-21 fiscal budget.
The March 2020 election will be administered in Merced County utilizing Vote-By-Mail ballots for voters registered as Permanent Vote By Mail as well as for those voters living in all-mail precincts. That’s the trend for the future in California as counties gradually move to all Vote-By-Mail elections, supported by Vote Centers operating on extended days before the election.
Levey said some 75 percent of the voters in the November 2018 election were considered Vote-By-Mail voters.
Nevertheless, voters who remain registered to vote at the polls will continue to do so for the 2020 elections. Recently, Merced County Elections has been conducting accessibility surveys on all poll locations scheduled for use for the March 2020 Primary Election. In an effort to meet accessibility standards so that all of voters can access services on Election Day, surveys are completed by trained staff members so that accessibility can be improved through mitigation.
Along with the surveys, the availability of poll location sites are also being confirmed. Unfortunately, some traditional sites may need to change in cases where a traditional site has been made unavailable for use. Additionally, as voter registration numbers change, some changes may be necessary to continue to adhere to regulations regarding the number of registered voters within a precinct. Voters will be advised of their poll location in their County Voter Information Guide materials.
Merced County will have three Vote Centers open and operating for the 2020 elections. They are planning to again provide a Vote Center on the Westside of the county as well as one in Merced and one on the UC Merced campus.
Levey says she is excited about the latter one because the UC population has increased, and those students have demonstrated they want to vote. There have been long lines in the past. However, many are not thinking about it until Election Day. The Vote Center will be able to help those who are registered in other areas of the state plan out how they want to vote from UC Merced.
All the centers will be open for at least eight hours per day on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday prior to Election Day and open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. The Vote Centers will be able to provide services including: The ability to replace a damaged or misplaced Vote-By-Mail ballot, offer and process Conditional Voter Registration services (voter can register to vote and vote on the same day) and receive voted Vote-By-Mail ballots that are sealed in the signed Vote-By-Mail envelope.
For the 2020 elections, the county will also once again provide a number of secure Ballot Drop Boxes throughout the County. Drop box locations are being reviewed but are planned for City Hall locations, and at all of the Vote Center locations. An exterior drop box will again be available at the County Administration building.
Voters will note that all vote by mail postage is now paid by the county! Legislation effective January 2019 dictates that all Vote-By-Mail envelopes are return postage paid.
Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee
A couple of years ago, and in preparation for participation in the Voter Participation Act, the Merced County Registrar of Voters office developed an ongoing Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee (VAAC). The purpose of this committee is to provide input, observations, and recommendations to the Registrar of Voters on election services with the goal of continuing to improve accessibility for our senior and disabled communities. Merced County is committed to ensuring equal access to the electoral process so that all persons can vote independently and privately. This committee meets quarterly and they invite interested persons to visit the county’s Elections website or contact the Elections’ office for an application.
Merced County Elections must provide election materials and services in English, Spanish, Punjabi, Hmong and Chinese. In preparation for the 2020 elections, the county has continued to explore ideas to expand how they provide language services. They are continuing to look for partnerships in providing poll workers who are proficient in the required languages and have been successful in obtaining services to assist in translating materials and ballots.
One of the most exciting developments is our Multilingual Virtual Poll Worker or MVP. The MVP can assist poll workers in solving language access issues through the use of video remote interpreting. The MVP is accessed through iPads and can be used at a Vote Center or at the Elections main office. At the touch of a button, they can instantly access a nationwide network of interpreters for ‘real time face-to-face’ communication. The MVP supports 34 languages and American Sign Language. The county has tested the technology with members of the public during meetings and has received very positive feedback.
Language Accessibility Advisory Committee
Along with the Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee (VAAC), the county developed a Language Accessibility Advisory Committee (LAAC). The mission of the LAAC is to minimize obstacles in voting facing non-English speaking communities. Much like the VAAC, the purpose of the LAAC is to provide input, observations, and recommendations to the Registrar of Voters regarding our language services. This committee meets quarterly and they do invite participants who are experienced in dealing with language accessibility issues to join in.
Merced County Elections is working to implement a Remote Accessible Vote By Mail System (RAVBM). This system will allow voters with disabilities will be able to vote privately and independently by accessing and marking a ballot in a screen-readable format from any computer. Prior to the introduction of RAVBM, some voters, depending on their disability, required assistance to vote a Vote By Mail ballot. The implementation of this system includes separate ballot content review processes, Logic and Accuracy testing, screen reader testing and website updates.
Merced County has been evaluating all of its election equipment to determine needs as we head into the 2020 election cycle. At this time, officials do anticipate moving forward with new polling place equipment including tabulation systems and accessible voting equipment. While this is an exciting prospect, it is one that has required, and continues to require,a substantial amount of study and review as they evaluate systems and contracts. With a new system, they will also need to develop new training for poll workers so that they will be comfortable in setting up and operating the equipment and comfortable assisting voters if necessary.
Merced Elections is currently providing services for the Merced County Employees’ Retirement Association. This election date is Oct. 1. The candidate filing period has closed and they are performing a final proof check on the ballots today. Ballots for this election will be mailed soon to the voters who are county employees.
Nov. 5 Election
A General District Election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5, in Merced County. This election will have just one Merced Irrigation District Director seat (Division 3) on the ballot. Because this is just one Director seat, only registered voters who reside in that district will be eligible to vote. Ballots have been proofed for this election and ballots, with Voter Information Guides, will be mailed beginning the first week of October. The county will have a limited number of pool locations open on Election Day to serve the voters in the Merced Irrigation Division 3 district.
March 3, 2020
In addition to all of the activities and work detailed above, Merced County Elections is already hard at work on the March 3, 2020 Presidential Primary. The Petition-in-Lieu period, where candidates can obtain signatures to help offset filing costs, opens on Thursday, Sept. 12.
Contests included in this election will be:
- President of the United States
- United States Representative, District 16
- California State Assembly, District 21
- Judge, Superior Court, Office # 5
- Judge, Superior Court, Office # 7
- Judge, Superior Court, Office # 11
- County Supervisor, District 1
- County Supervisor, District 2
- County Supervisor, District 4
Important filing dates:
- Sept. 12 to Nov. 6: Signature in Lieu of Filing Fee Period
- Oct. 28 to Nov. 6: Declaration of Intention Period
- Nov. 12 to Dec. 6: Nomination/Declaration of Candidacy Period
- February 17, 2020: Last day to register to vote in this election
Those interested in becoming poll workers can access an application directly through the MercedElections.com website. Poll workers are paid for the trainings that they attend and are paid a stipend for work on Election Day. They are also hiring numerous Extra Help employees for the election cycle. Extra Help employees, who typically work up to 25 hours/week, are instrumental in helping to deliver election services. They have positions available for warehouse and equipment delivery as well as for office and other election related processes. Applications are available through the Merced County website.
Contact the Registrar of Voters office at 2222 M Street, Merced. Phone (209) 385-7541. Website: MercedEletions.org.