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King of All He Tabulates

Registrar of Voters Michael Vu oversees San Diego County’s massive voting operation. In a Q-and-A, he talked about the high cost of elections and the reason he thinks of himself as a wedding planner.

Registrar of Voters Michael Vu faces the logistical headache of all logistical headaches every election year.

With the help of a staff of 64 that balloons to 9,000 on Election Day, he needs to make sure that voters get ballots and sample ballots. That’s no simple task. San Diego County is so full of public agencies with elected officials that the registrar must print up nearly 600 different ballots for voters, depending on where they live. Plus nearly 600 sample ballots. And every single ballot and sample ballot has to be translated into five languages.

Then Vu has to oversee the counting and certification of the votes before the process starts over again. In his seven years with the county, he’s only had one (2011) that passed without a single election.

Now, the Registrar of Voters office is finishing its move into a new building in the county’s sparkling new administration complex, getting ready for the special San Diego mayoral election on Feb. 11 and assisting candidates who want to get on the ballot in 2014.

Vu, who previously worked in the election world in Salt Lake City and Cleveland, could see his job drastically change if California elections ever move to mail-only or online-only voting. For now, though, it doesn’t look like that will happen soon.

In a Q-and-A, Vu talked about the high cost of elections (the Feb. 11 mayoral election alone is estimated to run $4 million to $5 million), the differences between elections in Cleveland and here, and the reason he thinks of himself as a wedding planner.

How hard is it to run an election for 1.4-1.5 million registered voters?

I say we’re mass wedding planners.

We only have one day for an election, and during that 13-hour voting period, all of our polling place employees have to show up to give voters a ballot. You can’t jilt the bride — the voters.

How does our turnout compare to other places in the state?

We have a very robust county. In the 2012 presidential election, 77 percent of registered voters turned out, and we were the highest of the Southern California counties.

Some of that is related to the propensity of our voters to vote by mail, since they’re more likely to return it than others are to go to the polls. Mail voters make up 54 percent of the registered voters: Over 850,000 voters consider themselves a permanent vote-by-mail voter.

Isn’t it easier for everyone to have vote by mail?

For the voters it becomes more a matter of convenience. It gives time for people to receive their ballot 29 days before a ballot, understand who the candidates are, research it should they chose to it and then get back to us.

For us, it allows us to release the results at 8 p.m. on Election Day and have a good idea for the public, campaign and media about what the election is shaping up to look like. This past mayoral election, we released 57 percent of the total votes for at 8 p.m. [Note: The early results were misleading, however.]

How much would you save on your $18 million annual budget to move to full voting by mail?

We’re estimating it could save $2 million to $3 million out of the $7 million to $10 million cost of each county-wide election.

Shouldn’t you be saving a lot right now because so many people are voting by mail?

We’re highly regulated. I’m a huge advocate of vote by mail, but the current election laws don’t allow us to say we need fewer resources. They’re from back in the days when vote-by-mail numbers weren’t very big.

Yes. Now we have to recruit all the polling locations: 1,527 precincts. You have to staff it, you have to recruit all the polling workers and train them. You have to provide small stipends to the polling places and pay the workers.

In the 40th (District) state Senate election this year, 85 percent of the votes were vote by mail. That meant only 15 percent of people went to polls for the 13-hour period, but we had to prepare according to what the law says.

Do you support moving to mail-only voting, like Oregon and Washington?

I’d like to be able to get there, and one of the Board of Supervisors’ legislative proposals is to allow our county to conduct special elections by vote by mail instead of polling locations. But the state needs to allow for that.

Do you think politicians are resisting the idea?

That could be. But if it doesn’t happen by legislative means, it will just go there [via more people signing up to vote by mail].

There are considerations of making sure it’s accessible, whether it’s the language communities we need to serve or individuals with disabilities. We can accommodate them by maybe having satellite locations where people can vote as opposed to everyone having to come down here.

Now we serve five languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino. We can send a voter a ballot in that language if they request it.

How are things different here, election-wise, than in Cleveland, where you worked for three years before coming here?

We have multiple languages here, and that certainly makes it complex. Geography-wise, we’re a lot larger.

The other distinction is that we’re on the border. You have to consider that when you’re trying to translate election materials into four languages, you need to go to the point of dialect. You can’t have Puerto Rican Spanish, which may be acceptable in Cleveland. Here, you need Mexican Spanish.

Here, the election laws are complex. [Vu shows me the state Election Code in book format. It’s 558 pages.]

Is the running of elections less political here compared to Cleveland?

Here, I’m appointed by the county’s deputy chief administrative officer. It’s non-partisan. Back East in Cleveland, you have a bipartisan board, two Democrats, two Republicans. You have the partisan atmosphere. You also have a lot of traditions of elections how people get on the ballot.

Back there, if there was an issue regarding a candidate, you’d go before the board first. Here, you go before a judge. It’s less political here in that respect.

What about online voting?

Certainly it’s happening, but for a variety of reasons there are concerns. In concept, it seems like it would create so much cost-savings and convenience, but is there a foolproof method to prevent hacking?

Are there enough safeguards to make sure that someone who “won” the election actually won it? There are questions and doubts, and the country hasn’t gone there yet.

Do you think online voting will ever be feasible?

I think at some time it will be there. But the IT infrastructure needs to be there, and we’re certainly a long ways from there.

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