Community partnerships help California registrars bring elections into 21st century

150 150 Catherine Shieh

(photo credit: Aaron Webb) Elections officers receive training before the 2008 election. 

Many times, local governments want nothing more than to help the communities that they serve but just need a little bit of direction on how to best do so.

As you read a couple weeks ago, Registrar Carolyn Crnich of Humboldt County encountered a serious error in the 2008 elections in which Diebold’s faulty software simply deleted 197 ballots. One of the shining community members to help replace the faulty software and discover the missing ballots was Mitch Trachtenberg, a man with a compelling story on how he ended up working with the Registrar as a volunteer for the last five years.

Mitch didn’t grow up being utterly fascinated by election administration (does anyone?). Instead, his interest came from witnessing what happened to his mother in the 2000 Bush v. Gore presidential election. As a West Palm Beach resident in Florida, his mother’s vote became the victim of poor ballot design. Ballots in that county were being thrown out by the thousands for something that could’ve been prevented.

The 2000 election opened up Pandora’s box about the blatant injustices that occur in voting systems across our nation. Remember the pictures of hanging chads that election season?

When the Registrar was using the same faulty software that was previously used in Florida, Mitch contacted her immediately. Thankfully, Crnich is a Registrar who shares a desire for transparency and wants to find ways to stretch her role as a county official. She took Trachtenberg’s feedback very seriously and they met with a group of other constituents to find a straightforward solution. Finding one meant scanning the ballots to make them into public documents, leading to the start of a lifelong friendship – and the Humboldt County Elections Transparency Project.

The other elections project for Trachtenberg? While he’s working with Crnich, he’s also trying to get all constituents voting and interested in the voting process itself.

“Elections are our ultimate national security issue. Our president is the most powerful person in the world, an elected official. The president has the power to declare war and use the nuclear football. The people we vote (or not vote at all) for make very important  decisions for us,” said Trachtenberg.

Not all counties are created equal, which means voting population numbers and resources vary widely between political boundaries. All counties deserve responsive community leaders like Carolyn Crnich of Humboldt and Neal Kelley of Orange County to stretch the limits of their roles and responsibilities as Registrars. Other Registrars like Joe Paul Gonzalez of San Benito County and Kari Verjil of Riverside are finding innovative solutions to make information more accessible and recruit the community to help improve the system.

To reverse Californias abysmal voter participation numbers counties also need dynamic constituents like Trachtenberg who devote their time to understand the complexity behind elections and are willing to work hand-in-hand with their local officials.

We are struck by the ingenuity and collaboration between elections officials and Californians. Our Golden State is the birthplace of transformative business and tech ideas. This culture of innovation can permeate into policy solutions when it comes to improving elections – it’s only a matter of time and human capital.

As we reflect on the counties with elections websites and practices we highlighted, county elections officials achieved success when they were able to work with the public that they serve. Californians and local officials alike are the key to tackling policy issues even beyond the reach of elections administration. It’s the ultimate partnership, and becoming part of the invaluable process of change is a huge step in the right direction.

Registrars across the state came together this month to strategize on outreach at the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials’ Annual (CACEO) Conference. CACEO and California Forward are a part of the Future of California Elections (FOCE), a collaboration between county election officials, civil rights advocates and good government groups committed to identifying consensus-based approaches to the twin goals of increasing the effectiveness of the state’s election system while also expanding participation throughout all of California’s diverse communities.


Catherine Shieh

All stories by: Catherine Shieh