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County hires expert to probe elections office

Prompted by concerns about the integrity of the local democratic process, Merced County has hired an outside expert to examine how it conducts elections.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors approved spending up to $75,000 for the audit.

Stephen Trout, an El Dorado Hills-based attorney and an expert in elections law, began the review Thursday.

The audit follows recent mix-ups at the county elections office, including one that caused a school board candidate's name to be left off the November ballot.

In October, after learning of the error, Supervisor Mike Nelson asked whether the county's top elections official, Stephen Jones, could be stripped of his elections duties. Jones is the county's elected auditor-controller, but also serves as its appointed registrar of voters -- a job the Board of Supervisors could pass to someone else if it wants.

Instead of taking that step, the board opted for the audit. "Before we do anything, we need to first figure out what the problems are, and the extent of those problems," Nelson said.

He said the latest incident wasn't the first time local elections officials have given potential candidates misinformation about running for office; that's what forced Atwater Elementary School Board hopeful Jean Anderson to run as a write-in candidate in November. She was not elected.

In other instances, absentee voters have received official ballots before sample ballots, voters have been given the wrong ballots and ballots have been misprinted, officials said.

So far, county officials say, every error has been caught early enough to allow all affected voters to cast ballots.

Still, Nelson says, the mistakes merit concern. "There've been rumblings of problems for years," he said. "We need to make sure people have confidence in our electoral process, and when there are these kinds of questions, it doesn't inspire a lot of confidence."

County spokesman Mark Hendrickson said county officials recognize the importance of protecting voter rights, and they're expecting the review will "leave no stone unturned."

Trout has served as the California Secretary of State's senior elections counsel. He's also reviewed elections practices in more than a dozen counties, including Fresno and Stanislaus. And he's defended local governments in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though it's uncertain exactly how long the review will last, it will be at least several months long -- enough time for Trout to observe February's primary and develop best-practice lists and training and procedure manuals for the office, said James Fincher, the county's lead attorney.

If Trout discovers problems, they'll be remedied as soon as possible, Fincher said. "We won't wait. We'll address any problems as soon as they're identified."

Jones said he expects Trout will recommend adding employees to the elections office, as it's understaffed compared with elections departments in counties of similar size.

Beyond that though, Jones said he's confident the audit won't reveal any deficiencies. "We had a problem in the last election, and I can't deny that," Jones said. "But we've corrected it ... But if (Trout) has recommendations for us, we'll certainly accept them. We'd be crazy not to."

Besides looking at potential problems within the elections office, Trout is expected to advise elections staff on a host of new rules recently handed down by the Secretary of State. Those rules place dozens of strict conditions on counties that use electronic voting machines, which includes Merced.

Elections officials across the state have labeled the conditions as extremely excessive. San Diego County sued Secretary of State Debra Bowen this week over the new rules, arguing that she exceeded her authority in imposing them.

With so much up in the air so close to February's primary, county officials say the extra expertise will prove helpful.

Jones said he expects more counties will file suit. Merced County has not discussed that option, Fincher said.

The county elections office is charged with preparing for and conducting all local elections, including creating, printing and mailing ballots, setting up polling stations, counting votes and complying with state and federal elections regulations.

Reporter Corinne Reilly

can be reached at 209 385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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