On Oct. 31, the first day of in-person voting for this year’s election, two first-time poll workers walked into a building at Mills College in East Oakland ready to serve. The college campus was being turned into one of 26 voting centers in Oakland where any registered voter in the county could fill out or drop off a ballot over the next four days. In preparation, the two poll workers, both young women from Oakland, had taken a quiz from the registrar of voters about voting center procedures, but since the quiz did not offer a thorough explanation of the process, they assumed they would receive more training that morning before people actually started casting ballots. In an interview with The Oaklandside, the two women said that’s not at all what happened.
“I walked into the situation thinking other people are going to know what to do and I can trust what they say,” said one of the poll workers. “But it’s really frustrating to suddenly feel like, ‘Oh, there’s no adult in the room. The adults, this voting guide, and the hotline are worthless.’”
Both of the Mills College poll workers who spoke with The Oaklandside asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns.
What happened over the next several days, according to the two poll workers, and later confirmed by election officials, was that approximately 138 people who voted at Mills College using touchscreen devices were told that their printed-out ballots were “receipts,” and that they could take them home. In fact, these printouts were their official ballots, and should have been left with poll workers to be counted. When the two women raised questions and sought guidance from supervisors from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office, they said, they were given contradictory and false information.
According to a coalition of voter advocacy and civil rights groups, the mistake at Mills College, which appears to have disenfranchised over 100 voters, was just one example of systemic problems that marred this year’s election in Alameda County.
On Nov. 12, Oakland Rising, ACLU of Northern California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and 15 other voting rights groups sent a letter of concern to Dupuis accusing his office of several serious failures in the administration of the election. In addition to not adequately training poll workers, the groups allege, the registrar failed to install all of the county’s 63 ballot drop boxes before the legally required deadline of Oct. 6 (only 25 were in place by then); failed to post election materials in multiple languages other than English, and failed to comply with other language access requirements at in-person voting locations.
But what happened at Mills was most egregious, according to Jonathan Mehta Stein, the executive director at California Common Cause, a voter advocacy nonprofit. In his seven years working for fair elections, Mehta Stein said he had “never seen anything like it.”
“Poll workers make mistakes. It happens all over the place. The difference is that those poll workers can count on an elections judge or a captain to give them good information where they’re making an error, or they can count on the county elections office to give them reliable information and instructions so they can correct their mistakes,” Mehta Stein said. “In this instance, the poll workers repeatedly called the county elections office because they thought something was wrong and got incorrect information.”
Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis, who oversees elections in Alameda County, didn’t respond to requests for more information from The Oaklandside, but, as we’ll explain below, he has disputed the groups’ claims in statements shared by his office.
Critics say bad information and little training led to voter disenfranchisement
Many voters on Election Day opted to use touchscreen machines known as ballot marking devices, which print out their ballot with their choices of candidates and measures marked on them. The problem at Mills College was that numerous voters who used these machines were sent home with the ballots they were supposed to leave with poll workers, and as a result their votes were never counted.
The two volunteers said they were originally instructed by the center’s judges and captain that only paper ballots filled out by hand should be placed in a trolley to be counted, and that ballots filled out using the touchscreen devices would either be submitted electronically or stored on a hard drive to be picked up later. There was no electronic storage or hard drive, however.
Around mid-morning on Election Day, the volunteers realized something was seriously wrong. First, they caught a glimpse of one of the ballots generated by the ballot-marking devices. They noticed the words “official ballot” atop the printout.
“We had not gotten a good look at them previously, to respect voter privacy,” the poll workers wrote in testimony submitted to the voting rights groups.
After seeing a few more things that raised concerns, the poll workers called the registrar’s office seeking guidance. According to the poll workers, the registrar’s staffer told them that the printouts were “receipts,” but then told them that the ballot marking devices did not store voters’ ballots electronically.
“Whoever was answering that phone gravely, gravely misled us,” one of the poll workers said.
For the next few hours, despite continuing to receive misleading information from the captain running the voting center, the volunteers held on to all touchscreen-printed ballots. Finally, in the afternoon and on a direct call with another staff member from the registrar’s office, the two volunteers learned the correct process for the first time: ballots from touchscreens should be placed in the trolley to be counted.
The poll workers said they expected a supervisor from the registrar’s office to arrive after this and make sure the problem had been fixed, but that didn’t happen.
Following this experience, the two volunteers decided to reach out to local elected officials for help. One of the officials they contacted, District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, connected them to a local organization, Oakland Rising, and its executive director Jessamyn Sabbag, to take their full testimony. Sabbag is the staff point person for the nonprofit’s election protection work, which this year included sending poll monitors to Oakland’s in-person voting locations. Sabbag and her colleagues then contacted Julia Marks, a staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, and Angélica Salceda, the democracy and civic engagement director at the ACLU of Northern California. After taking testimony from the poll workers and investigating other alleged problems, the groups sent an 11-page letter to Registrar Tim Dupuis outlining their concerns.
The two volunteers told The Oaklandside that they are glad their experience is at last being investigated, but they’ve lost sleep the last two weeks wondering if they could have done more to protect people’s votes.
“We were the people that voters returned their ballots to, so it was us who looked people in the eye, about 140 people we told to take their ballot home. And I feel awful, like, physically ill about that,” one of the volunteers told The Oaklandside. “And we spent so much time trying to get other people to approach the situation with the same kind of urgency or responsibility that we took on.”
Alameda County’s registrar said problems weren’t systemic
On Nov. 13, Alameda County Registrar Tim Dupuis released a statement addressing the alleged problems with the election. He described learning about the Mills College issues on Election Day and confirmed that “a number” of the 300 voters who used the ballot marking devices there did leave “without casting their ballots.” The registrar’s office has tried to contact some of these voters and to date, Dupuis said, 22 have turned in their uncounted ballots. Dupuis wrote that he thought the “problem does not appear systemic. No information indicates this anomaly arose at any other voter center.”
Dupuis said the county’s 1,700 poll workers were properly trained. He wrote that his office provided “advanced training to poll workers on use of the touchscreen equipment” and that a comprehensive election worker guidebook was printed out and available at each voting center. His office also ran the helpline to take questions from poll workers.
Common Cause’s Mehta Stein says the registrar’s statement attempts to cast blame on his poll workers. “They are responsible for training and supporting the poll workers and ensuring voters can cast their ballots. They can’t blame their poll workers and then wipe their hands of the situation,” he says.
According to Marks and Salceda, there didn’t appear to be any print copies of the registrar’s 100-page election worker guide at the Mills voting center. The volunteer poll workers who were scrambling for answers about whether or not to keep printed ballots had to download it on their smartphones and read the tiny text.
And Marks and Salceda wrote in the letter to the registrar that this guide “does not clearly indicate” that the printouts from the touchscreen ballot-marking devices are official ballots that should be left with poll workers.
Monitors found multiple voting centers did not have materials in multiple languages
According to Marks, the voting rights attorney, poll watchers noticed on the first day of voting that not all voting centers were making facsimile ballots available for people whose first language isn’t English. California law says facsimile ballots—a translated example ballot that helps people understand their English ballot, but can’t actually be used to vote—must be printed out by poll workers and visibly posted in all in-person voting locations. In Alameda County, facsimile ballots are supposed to be made available in nine languages: Burmese, Hindi, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Mien, Mongolian, Punjabi, and Telugu. Poll watchers identified more than a dozen locations in Alameda County that were not adhering to this requirement.
According to the poll monitors, some poll workers were confused when asked where they had posted facsimile ballots. At one voting center, when monitors asked to see facsimile ballots, the poll workers showed them copies of a voter information guide in Vietnamese and other languages, which is different from a ballot. Marks and Salceda checked multiple voting centers and found the same issue.
“We tried to get the county to acknowledge there might be a systemic problem,” Marks said. “Their response was that we need to keep calling in individual incidents rather than acknowledging that maybe we have a training issue that we need to fix.”
Marks said that on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 31, the first full day of in-person voting, the registrar stopped answering questions from her group. Concerned about all the problems they were spotting, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus sent a formal letter threatening to file a lawsuit and that only after threatening litigation did the registrar start posting more of the facsimile ballots.
“We recognize how difficult it is to administer elections but we want to have more active and open communication so that we can help raise these issues and make sure that they’re addressed in a really timely manner,” said Marks.
Dupuis wrote in an email to the voting rights groups that it was infeasible to print and post every possible version of the facsimile ballots at each voting center because each ballot in Alameda County is customized down to the level of a voter’s home district. For example, Oakland voters who live in District 5 were able to vote for the District 5 City Council and school board candidates this year, whereas voters who lived in District 6 didn’t have these options on their ballot.
“Given the 2,707 ballot types for this election,” Dupuis wrote, his office would have needed to “print and post over 10,000 pages at each of the vote center locations.”
It was a successful election in many ways, but advocates are calling for an audit
Voter registration was high this year in Alameda County, and final voter turnout numbers are expected to be equally impressive. But Sabbag, who has worked on voting rights advocacy for more than a decade, says the problem with this year’s election deserve attention now, so they can be fixed and no one’s votes are lost in future elections.
Sabbag said she wants the registrar to meet with advocates to establish “clear accountability and a process” to understand what happened at Mills College, and plans to make sure it doesn’t happen again. She said this should include public testimony from people who may have been disenfranchised this year.
The voting rights groups are also continuing to investigate the situation at Mills College on their own. Last week, they filed a public records request seeking documents from the registrar that could shed more light on the training issues and other mistakes that caused votes cast there to go uncounted.
Mehta Stein says in order to find out what really happened, there should be a full audit of how the registrar prepared for and ran this year’s election. This is particularly important, he said, because the voters who were most likely affected by missing ballots were predominantly Black, Latino, and Asian, and from lower-income communities that have historically faced barriers to voting.
With communities of color and low-income people already living with deep suspicions that their votes won’t be counted properly, Mehta Stein said, any sustained voting controversy could have lasting damage.
“California is one of the states that by and large bends over backwards to count every eligible vote and works to disprove that really pernicious fear or suspicion. But you get one example like this and, all of a sudden, that fear and suspicion is validated and just perpetuates for future election cycles,” he said.