For the past several days, I have been in Anaheim, California, within spitting distance of Disneyland, to attend the annual conference of the Hart Users Group. This is made up of those localities around the country who use election equipment manufactured by Hart Intercivic, including the eSlate system (used by the City of Charlottesville) and BallotNow, a system that reads paper ballots (such as those used for mail-in absentee voting, and also used in Charlottesville).
There were about 80 election officials from six states attending the conference. Three Virginia jurisdictions were present: Charlottesville and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church. There were also officials from Illinois, Texas, Washington state, and, of course, California.
The conference was hosted by Orange County, which is going to have an election on Tuesday (to fill the congressional seat vacated by SEC Chairman Christopher Cox) and another one a week later (a local ballot measure). We began the two days of meetings with a tour of the Orange County Registrar of Voters office, which is far more than an "office": It is a huge warehouse facility with special rooms for telecommunications, voter registration processing, automated mailing systems, and videography.
Orange County is the fourth-largest county in the United States, by population. It has 1.5 million registered voters, including 400,000 "permanent absentee" voters. In a major election, Orange County has as many as 1,700 precincts and 9,000 pollworkers. (Even in a small election, such as the November election for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's four ballot initiatives, Orange County consolidates its precincts and still ends up with 900.) By law, ballots in Orange County must be printed and available in five languages: English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Acting Registrar Neal Kelley, who hosted the tour of the facility, noted that a sixth language, Tagalog, may soon be required, as well.
In contrast, Charlottesville has eight precincts and in a typical election deploys about 100 election officials (pollworkers). Our ballots appear in one language, English. The contrast is fascinating, yet the equipment is the same.
Most of the proceedings of the conference dealt with improvements in Hart's software that are coming down the line and demonstrations of new hardware, including a VVPAT (voter-verifiable paper audit trail) add-on for the eSlate, which will be tested in Orange County's congressional election in five precincts on Tuesday. The devices were also tested last month in a local election in Woburn, Massachusetts. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will be testing this equipment in Charlottesville, too. The device looks to be easy to use, secure, and trustworthy. (Though by my assessment such an add-on is a useless expense of $1,000 that the taxpayers need not pay, simply to satisfy the paranoid dreams of a few malcontented and self-anointed "experts.")
Last year, Charlottesville hosted the Hart Users Group and about 50 people attended. This year there were about 80 attendees in Anaheim. Next year's Hart Users Group conference will be at the home of Hart's corporate headquarters, Austin, Texas. With Hart winning more customers every month, it will not be unreasonable to expect 100 or more people to attend.
These conferences are valuable because election officials from many different jurisdictions, who face correspondingly different (yet comparable) circumstances, can trade information about how to handle problems, how best to address issues of security and customer service (remembering that our customer is the voter), and generally exchanging ideas about best practices and procedures to make elections run smoothly (never "flawlessly," that would be a pipe dream) and efficiently in a manner that undergirds the confidence of voters, candidates, and the media.
I want to do a bit of a news roundup in regard to events occurring in my absence from home and the Web:
My piece on George Will's commentary on budget-cutting officials in Indiana was mentioned in Below the Beltway as part of the Carnival of Liberty XXII. And Brandon Meyer, hosting the thirteenth in the series of Virginia Blog Carnivals, noted my review of the Moscow Boys Choir concert at Charlottesville's Paramount Theatre. The next Virginia Blog Carnival will be found at Sophispundit.
The biggest news on local television in southern California for the past few days has been the theft of Gregory Peck's star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was impossible to watch the early evening or 11:00 o'clock newscasts without seeing at least one segment on this earth-shattering story. Still, whatever the reason, it was nice to see honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant on TV while I was here. (Not to worry: Although the original is still missing, a new star has replaced the old one on the Walk of Fame.)
Preparations for the statewide recount in the Virginia Attorney General's race are proceeding deliberately. The State Board of Elections has sent each locality a questionnaire, asking about voting equipment and the staffing that will be needed to perform a recount. These questionnaire's are being turned over to the judge who will rule on Creigh Deeds' petition for a recount. We expect the recount to begin on or about December 19. Insider's prediction: Look for an unusual number of votes to be changed from the absentee ballots cast in the City of Alexandria, due to the way paper ballots were counted on election day (machine-read) and the way they will be recounted (by human eye and hand). We anticipate few, if any, numbers to change in Charlottesville.
The successor to retiring Delegate Glenn Weatherholtz, Delegate-elect Matt Lohr of Broadway, has announced he will continue his predecessor's fools' errand to ban Gay-Straight Alliances from government schools in Virginia. Jeff Mellott of the Daily News Record of Harrisonburg quotes Lohr as saying, "Our public schools are not the place [for] clubs based on sexual orientation, whether gay or straight." I have addressed the bill originally introduced by Weatherholtz earlier ("At Seventeen," October 11), and the federal law governing equal access to government school facilities has not been repealed since then.
There will be more news to come from California. I'm spending the weekend in the San Fernando Valley with my sister and her husband, and we plan to immerse ourselves in La-La Land culture, including a visit to a photographic exhibit in Pasadena and another to a display of costumes from the two Star Wars trilogies.