Humboldt County embraces new system for election transparency

150 150 Catherine Shieh

(photo credit: Jeff Knezovich)

Want to see every ballot cast in the last election with your own two eyes? The Humboldt County Registrar makes that possible in her home near the Oregon border.

Humboldt Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich responded to controversy and an outcry from residents by creating a system for anyone to request a scanned version of the vote through the Humboldt County Elections Transparency Project.

In 2008, to the dismay of Humboldt County voters, 197 votes (or 0.3 percent of the total vote) disappeared due to a software malfunction. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time for this software to simply delete ballots and Crnich was rightly approached by constituents who had grave concerns regarding the voting system soon after the election results.

The software is made by Diebold, a name which may conjure up memories of hanging chads in Florida in 2000 and other issues in 2004. Crnich and that same group of constituents did an audit after connecting the dots on Diebold’s spotty history and found the missing ballots. Locals thought the software was too closed off from the public and wanted a better auditing process. After pinpointing the problem, the Secretary of State’s office swiftly initiated an investigation and decertified the faulty software.

While 197 ballots may not seem insignificant on a statewide scale, in small county elections, even a few votes can prove decisive. In fact, the City of Ferndale mayoral race last year was decided by only five votes.

By chance, she met a Humboldt county resident that would be monumentally helpful in her efforts to transform the Registrar’s office. This resident was Mitch Trachtenberg, who aided Humboldt County’s transition to TEV Software for better elections auditing. It has since made it easier for the public to tally votes and allows anyone to sort through the ballots by precinct or race. Next, every paper ballot got digitally scanned and posted online. Any member of the public can request a DVD copy of all of the scanned ballots and judge the outcome with their own eyes.

What Crnich is most appreciative of however, is that the community helped shape the elections process into its current form.

“Voters didn’t just tell me how to make it [the process] better, they asked to be a part of the solution with me.” Giving credit where credit is due, the Humboldt County Elections Transparency Project could not have been possible without the enthusiastic constituents who want to move forward and rebuild trust in government together.

In 2011, Humboldt County received a $25,000 grant from the US Elections Assistance Commission in recognition of their post-election audit efforts. This money allows the Registrar to continue improving software for best ballot verification practices. Trachtenberg is currently creating templates for other ballot types, and Crnich is helping the county transition to new software that can read ballots for multiple systems.

Crnich can take a bit of a breather though – she can finally utter the words to every Humboldt voter: “Yes your vote was counted, and yes, your vote was counted correctly.”

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