The County Elections Office will upgrade its automated machinery, spending nearly half a million dollars for use in future elections, which are now overwhelmingly being done with mail-in balloting.

Out-going Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong, in one of his final actions in that elected position, asked Supervisors for $450,700 to buy a “Vote by Mail (VBM) envelope sorting and opening system.”

The system itself is $399,000 of that total and the County will use “Voting System Replacement Contract” monies, via Assembly Bill 1824, to pay for it, according to a staff report.

The new system will greatly improve the Election’s Office’s current system. “The clerk-recorder currently uses five separate machines,” Gong’s report said, “to process incoming Vote by Mail ballot envelopes; two VBM verifiers to capture ballot issue IDs and signatures, and three envelope openers to expedite VBM opening and ballot extraction.”

“While this equipment has served this county well over the years,” Gong continued, “the significant increase in vote by mail voting in this county, as well as changes to election legislation requiring voter signature security, has necessitated a more streamlined approach, with automated tab removal capabilities.”

The new machines will help greatly with the upcoming recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Over 240,000 VBM ballots were received for the 2020 election cycle,” Gong said. “The upcoming statewide, special governor recall election will be conducted as a polling place election, but all registered voters will receive a VBM ballot per emergency legislation, which is in effect through Dec. 31, 2021.
“With over 80% of San Luis Obispo County voters registered as permanent vote by mail voters, automation is essential to completing mandated election duties within required deadlines.”

“The Fluence Criterion Elevate VBM envelope sorting and opening system,” Gong explained, “automates and streamlines many of the tasks involved in processing inbound mail ballots, such as imprinting date/time receipt endorsement, imaging voter’s signature for verification, streamlining the signature verification process and sorting based on signature challenge type [e.g. missing signature, ballot missing, or multiple ballots], precinct or ballot style. This ‘multi-pass’ system also opens only those envelopes where signatures have been accepted on the final pass.”

Fluence was one of three vendors that make this specialized machinery, and Gong picked them because it is the only one “that offers the laser tab removal and the only system that fits in the available physical space at the clerk-recorder office.”
The County is buying the new machine through a previous request for bids by the State of Arizona and under a special law through the National Association of State Procurement Officials.

The new system’s $450,700 cost includes software licenses, installation, maintenance, taxes, and shipping. The annual maintenance cost is $43,500 and will be offset “by the elimination of existing service contracts for the replaced VBM verifier system and envelope opening equipment. The net annual budgetary increase for this maintenance is approximately $5,000.”

In other voting related news, the County will hold its first community engagement event with a public hearing on July 20 at 1:30 p.m. to solicit ideas on how to adjust the district boundaries for electing the Board of Supervisors for the next decade.

The public hearings will provide an opportunity for the boundaries between the County’s five supervisorial districts to be reviewed to assure equal population distribution according to the 2020 U.S. Census data, as well as compliance with the Voting Rights Act and state requirements.

The public is invited to provide comments online, in-person, or on the phone. Submit testimony in the online at www.slocounty.ca.gov/redistricting and click on “Submit General Public Comment” or “Submit Community of Interest Public Comments.” Go to the same website for information on how to be a part of in-person comments or call 805-781-1085.