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New Sonoma County voting system gets test drive

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The 2020 primaries will be the first opportunity for Petaluma voters to use a series of technology upgrades that election officials are expecting will modernize the polling experience and speed up counting processes that have historically been amongst the slowest in the state.

The new voting system, known as “Democracy Suite,” debuted last week during a special election for the Palm Drive Health District. Approximately 24,000 registered voters in western Sonoma County were asked if they wanted to approve Measure A, the potential lease and sale of a struggling Sebastopol hospital. It passed with about 75 percent support.

Deva Proto, the county’s election chief, hosted demonstrations throughout the week to show off six new high-speed scanners as they counted ballots and searched for any irregularities for officials to manually adjudicate on nearby computers. Previously, election workers had to physically duplicate ballots for a finicky counting machine that was constantly rejecting them.

The new digitized system will make the counting process far more efficient, Proto said, and allow election officials to provide periodic updates over the 30 days legally provided to certify the results. She’s optimistic certification will happen faster under the new system.

In the past, results were only provided on Election Night, and then again weeks later after every mail-in ballot had been counted and certified, sometimes sparking conspiracy theories from constituents that were wary about the process.

“It was very frustrating to people because the Election Night results, it’s been changing,” said Proto, Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters. “More people vote by mail, and more people are waiting until later.”

The 2018 midterms were the first time in California history that counties received more mail-in ballots after Election Day than before it, Proto said.

In Petaluma, that trend impacted one race in particular.

In a tightly-contested battle for three seats on the Petaluma City School Board, challenger Caitlin Quinn trailed incumbent Sheri Chlebowski by 374 votes after Election Night. Nearly a month later when the results were certified, Quinn secured the third seat by a margin of 1,198, amassing more than 5,000 votes after Nov. 6.

Election workers can begin processing mail-in ballots as they arrive but can’t start the counting process until Election Day, Proto said. The first update is typically after 8 p.m. once precincts have closed, with a follow-up later in the night when ballots have been brought in from polling places across the county.

Under the new system, voters will be able to monitor results as the county gets closer to certification.

“(Now) you’d be able to see it get closer and closer and maybe switching over,” Proto said.

Voters that cast their ballots at their local polling places will encounter the new touch-screen ballots, which provide a customizable interface for voters to tailor their experience to mirror their specific needs at the booth. Things like language, color and font size can all be changed with a few touches.

In order to activate the digital ballot, each voter will receive a chip card that has been programmed and secured by a precinct officer once they’ve been checked in.

Blind or disabled voters will be able to choose an accessible session, which is essentially an audio-driven experience that’s coupled with a small hand-held device to help them navigate through each race on the ballot. The controller has braille on top of each button.

When a voter is finished, they’ll print out the ballot, which has a unique QR code that can be read by the scanners in Santa Rosa, and get to review their picks before placing it in the ballot box. If anything is incorrect, they can notify an election worker to spoil the printout, and get a new chip card to restart the process.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)