Skip Repetitive Navigation Links
California State Auditor Logo  

Report Number: 2017-107

Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters
Insufficient Policies and Procedures Have Led to Errors That May Have Reduced Voters’ Confidence in the Registrar’s Office


The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters (Santa Clara) is responsible for administering elections within the county. These include federal, state, judicial, county, municipal, school district, and special elections. Santa Clara County is the sixth largest county in California, with a population of approximately 1.9 million residents. Santa Clara’s mission is to protect and ensure the community’s right to participate in fair, inclusive, accurate, and transparent elections. Its vision is to be the model of integrity, innovation, and community empowerment in elections. In addition to election planning and administration, Santa Clara is responsible for verification of initiatives, certification of referenda and recall petitions, examination and acceptance of campaign reports, and maintenance of voter registration.

Requirements in both state and federal law determine the characteristics of the election‑related materials that California voters receive. State law requires California to provide voter information guides to registered voters before each election to inform their voting decisions. The California Secretary of State’s Office (Secretary of State) is responsible for preparing the state voter information guides before statewide elections. However, each county is responsible for providing the official ballots to voters for statewide elections. As part of administering three to five elections each year, Santa Clara also creates and distributes county voter information guides—which include sample ballots—and official ballots.1 For each countywide election, Santa Clara distributes these materials to more than 850,000 registered voters within the county. In contrast, Santa Clara may distribute materials to only a few thousand registered voters when a special election pertains to a limited population. Voter information guides provide voters with impartial analysis; arguments in favor and against ballot measures; candidate statements for various federal, state, and local offices; descriptions of voter rights; full information on measures; and other important information. State and federal laws also require specific formatting for voter information guides and ballots. For example, arguments are not to exceed 300 words for county measures. Other specifications include required wording, margins, font sizes, word and content restrictions, and language translations.

According to state law, as California’s chief elections authority, the Secretary of State administers and enforces state election laws and sees that election officials conduct elections efficiently. The Secretary of State also adopted regulations specific to the election process that outline requirements that all California counties must follow for certain program implementation, reporting, and elections management. State law requires county election officials to meet specific deadlines for each general district election, such as ensuring candidates submit their statements 88 days before the election and mailing voter information guides 21 to 40 days before the election.

For each election, Santa Clara creates and distributes up to 250 different versions of voter information guides and ballot types, including for each political party affiliation when required, which it customizes to include contests specific to each registered voter. According to state and federal laws, Santa Clara must translate certain election‑related materials into eight languages, in addition to English. Santa Clara’s informal creation and distribution process, as described to us by its staff, is detailed and complex. Figure 1 summarizes certain key aspects of this informal process.

Figure 1
Santa Clara’s Description of Its Process for Publishing and Proofreading Election‑Related Materials

Figure 1 shows the timeline and key components of the process for creating, reviewing, and distributing election-related materials.

Source: Interviews with Santa Clara officials and available documentation.

* Federal law requires Santa Clara to provide all election-related materials in four languages, as well as English. In addition, California law requires Santa Clara to post facsimile ballots and related instructions in four additional languages at the polling places.

At least 125 days before each general district election, state law requires voting districts to deliver maps of their boundaries to Santa Clara. Then, at least 88 days before an election, Santa Clara must divide the county into voting precincts. A voting precinct is generally a geographic voting area of 1,000 voters or fewer, as defined by state law, which typically has a designated polling place where voters can go to vote. The voters within each precinct receive the same ballot type, based on applicable voting districts, such as congressional districts, school districts, cities, and special districts. For example, registered voters who reside within the boundaries of one school district receive a different ballot type than those who reside within another school district’s boundaries. Further, registered voters who reside in the same school district may receive different ballot types based on other voting district boundaries. For example, two voters who reside in the same school district but different assembly districts would receive different ballot types that would allow these individuals to vote on contests specific to their residential addresses.

Santa Clara’s Mapping Division (Mapping) uses boundary maps of voting districts to create complex integrations of the multiple voting districts, including congressional districts, state assembly districts, county supervisor districts, board of education districts, cities, school districts, and special districts, as the top of Figure 2 indicates. Once Santa Clara superimposes the layers of boundary maps onto each other, it can then determine the ballot types for each area. Santa Clara further segments each ballot‑type area into precincts.

Figure 2
Illustration Demonstrating How Santa Clara Superimposes Maps of Voting Districts to Determine Ballot Types and Precincts

Figure 2 is an illustration demonstrating how Santa Clara superimposes various voting district boundary maps to determine ballot types and precincts.

Source: California State Auditor generated from unaudited map data and other information provided by Santa Clara.

* Voting districts titled Other include various districts, such as water and supervisor districts.

As previously shown in Figure 1, candidates and voting districts, such as cities, begin filing statements and measures at least 125 days before each general district election. Santa Clara’s Candidate Services Division (Candidate Services) receives all candidate statements, text for proposed measures, arguments for and against measures, and rebuttals and enters this information into the election management software. Once Candidate Services receives all filed documents, it transfers them to Santa Clara’s Ballot Layout Division (Ballot Layout) to begin formatting the information for publication. According to state law, the final filing deadline for these documents is 83 days before the election. In addition, Santa Clara must send voter information guides to all registered voters 21 to 40 days before the election. In order to send this information by the 40‑day mark, Ballot Layout has 43 calendar days—typically the equivalent of 31 business days—to create, translate, and publish all voter information guides and official ballots.

Further, Santa Clara produces official ballots in both electronic text and audio formats. It also produces voter information guides in electronic format, but only produces these materials in audio format upon request. Santa Clara’s process for creating printed, electronic, and audio election‑related materials—which it has not documented comprehensively in the form of written step‑by‑step procedures—includes 18 proofreading steps conducted by 35 people to reduce the risk of errors. Ballot Layout prepares, proofreads, and translates these materials. Subsequently, the Vote by Mail Division (Vote by Mail) mails the vote‑by‑mail and overseas ballots to members of the military and others who are living out of the country temporarily to ensure that they receive ballots in time to vote. Beginning 60 days before the election, Santa Clara prepares logistics for election‑day polling locations; these preparations include programming its electronic voting systems and deploying materials, machines, and staffing for precincts.


1 Throughout our audit period, the terminology used in state law for voter information guides and sample ballots changed. Effective January 1, 2017, amended state law refers to these materials as county voter information guides, and the law generally requires that sample ballots be included in the guides. Therefore, for purposes of this report, we refer to sample ballots and county voter information guides collectively as voter information guides. Go back to text



Back to top