Coronavirus Election: Counties Scramble to Find Workers and Funding Ahead of November

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For the first time in state history, every registered voter in California will receive a mail in ballot to participate in the upcoming presidential election. State officials hope the absentee ballots will help increase safety during the coronavirus pandemic, but election officials and security experts tell the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit that some counties may not be prepared to handle hundreds of thousands of ballots without millions more in equipment and staffing.  

In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring all 58 counties to send a ballot to every voter. Some counties already hold elections through the mail, but for counties that still use traditional precincts, the added costs could create a significant financial burden.

In Contra Costa County, Clerk-Recorder Debi Cooper is in charge of making sure all of the county’s 660,000 registered voters receive a ballot on time.

“We’re preparing for the worst case [scenario] right now,” Cooper told NBC Bay Area. “We realize that there's going to be more ballots . . . that we have to process and it's going to take longer [to count the ballots].

Unlike electronic voting machines, ballots must be opened, sorted, and verified before tallied. This process can add days and even weeks to the counting process before a winner is named.

Around 75% of Contra Costa County residents currently vote by mail, which Cooper says should make it easier for the county to manage the additional load. Still, Cooper estimates it will cost $1.8 million more for the county to allow everyone to vote in person or through the mail.  

“We're determining the staffing needs, we're trying to locate poll workers, which of course is a challenge right now.” Cooper said.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla estimates it will cost at least $129 million statewide to conduct this year’s presidential election because of the coronvirus.

Even the 14 counties that already mail ballots to every voter under the Voter’s Choice Act will face additional costs. In San Mateo, election officials say they’ve spent $145,000 on COVID-19 related expenses including face shields, sanitary wipes, security guards to enforce social distancing requirements at vote centers, and plexiglass to separate workers.

“It's going to be a lesson for each and every county,” Secretary Padilla said. “We have the baseline infrastructure and capacity established in each county, [however] we do need to ramp up. Whether it's additional sorting equipment, maybe it's additional staffing, and frankly, voter education is going to be a key component here.”

John Sebes is the chief technology officer and co-founder of the OSET Institute, a Silicon Valley non-profit behind the national “Trust the Vote” project. Sebes fears that the hiring surge of new election workers could cause problems come election night.  

“I think you're going to have a significant risk of, if not human error, at least human confusion, because you’re trying to staff up beyond, your normal capacity,” Sebes said.

Stanford law professor Nate Persily similarly warns the impact of COVID-19 makes other threats like cyber security, foreign influence, and misinformation all the more severe.

“The problem is that the electoral environment is one that's particularly nerve wracking these days and characterized by partisan polarization, so there's very little room for error,” Persily said. “There are going to be lines at polling places. There's going to be concerns about social distancing. There will be disinformation about the adequacy of these polling places or the fairness of the vote count. So we're going to be in for a rough ride.”

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