The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters (Santa Clara) is responsible for administering federal, state, and local elections within the county. Santa Clara administers multiple elections annually. As part of administering these elections, Santa Clara conducts many tasks, including the creation of official ballots and the development and mailing of lengthy voter information guides. For this audit, we reviewed Santa Clara’s policies, procedures, and practices regarding its review and distribution of election‑related materials, oversight of its vendors, and actions associated with errors in election‑related materials that occurred from 2010 through 2016. In addition, we interviewed election officials from five other California counties regarding similar types of processes and errors related to producing and distributing election‑related materials. This report concludes the following:
Inadequate and Often Unwritten Policies, Procedures, and Practices Have Led to Errors in Election‑Related Materials
For eight of 26 errors that Santa Clara reported it experienced over the seven‑year period that we audited, it incorrectly mapped voting district boundaries, causing the distribution of the wrong voter information guides and ballots to some voters. These errors resulted from the inadequate approach by Santa Clara’s Mapping Division (Mapping) to obtaining maps and boundary information from voting districts, Santa Clara’s failure to use the full capabilities of its mapping and election management software, and its minimal efforts to identify the causes of the errors and to implement subsequent solutions. The remaining 18 errors resulted predominantly from staff mistakes within various divisions and from vendor errors. Santa Clara lacks detailed written procedures for the development of election‑related materials, and for those procedures that do exist, Santa Clara has not established effective controls to ensure that staff adequately verify the accurate production of these materials. In interviews with election officials at five other counties, we found that four counties have also experienced some errors in information they have distributed to voters.
Santa Clara Has Not Ensured That It Notifies Voters Consistently and Effectively About Errors in Election‑Related Materials
We found that Santa Clara used various means, including letters and press releases, to notify voters about most of its errors before the respective elections. However, because Santa Clara has not formalized a contingency plan or process to inform its decision making on how best to address election‑related errors, it has responded inconsistently and sometimes inadequately when notifying the public of errors. Specifically, we found that Santa Clara did not consistently explain the causes of errors or, when necessary, explain the steps necessary to ensure that such errors did not recur. By not disclosing this information, Santa Clara missed the opportunity to demonstrate to voters its commitment to ensuring the information they receive is accurate.
To Help Prevent Errors in Election‑Related Materials and Processes, the Secretary of State Should Enhance Its Oversight of County Election Officials
State law provides the California Secretary of State’s Office (Secretary of State) with oversight responsibility for county election activities; however, the Secretary of State does not actively monitor or review counties’ election‑related materials, and it provides limited guidance to election officials about what constitutes an error or how to address errors in election‑related materials. In fact, the Secretary of State does not define the criteria for determining the types of mistakes in election‑related materials that constitute reportable errors. This omission may contribute to inconsistencies in counties’ interpretations of election laws and regulations and to disparities in counties’ efforts to disclose errors to the public. In addition to interviewing staff at Santa Clara, we interviewed election officials at five other counties and found that they believe they can ask the Secretary of State for guidance if necessary. However, we are concerned that election officials are unlikely to seek guidance if they believe they are already interpreting or implementing requirements correctly, and this situation could lead to inconsistencies. By increasing its monitoring efforts, the Secretary of State could more readily identify statewide issues to better focus the direction it provides to counties, including guidance that helps ensure that counties are providing accurate information to voters and are addressing errors consistently.
Summary of Recommendations
Santa Clara should document its policies and procedures for the creation, review, and distribution of election‑related materials, prioritizing its documentation for the divisions that are responsible for the most frequent and egregious errors. To reduce mapping errors, Santa Clara should send voting districts the boundary maps it has on file and require the districts to verify the boundaries or updated boundary maps before each election. It should also coordinate with other county departments to maximize its available mapping resources. Further, Santa Clara should research its opportunities to integrate its mapping technology with its election management software to reduce the risk of staff errors.
Santa Clara should implement a contingency plan to ensure that it consistently and effectively addresses errors in the election-related materials it provides to voters. In addition, Santa Clara should explain in its postelection reports why errors occurred and how it plans to ensure that similar errors will not recur in the future. Further, to ensure the accuracy of election‑related materials, Santa Clara should require candidates, voting districts, or others who submit documents for inclusion in voter information guides and ballots to verify the accuracy of the electronic documents after they are formatted for publication.
Secretary of State
The Secretary of State should adopt regulations defining the criteria for mistakes in election‑related materials that constitute reportable errors. The Secretary of State should also require counties to report errors to its staff and should use this information to enhance the guidance it provides to county election officials. The Secretary of State should also conduct annual reviews of a selection of county election officials’ offices to ensure that these offices are complying with state election laws and regulations.
The County of Santa Clara agreed with our recommendations and indicated that it plans to take various actions to implement them. The Secretary of State explained that it is committed to exploring how it might address the recommendations we directed to it. We look forward to the Secretary of State’s 60-day response to our recommendations to learn more about its progress in implementing them.