State needs election disaster plan, says legislator

11:15 AM, Feb 11, 2013   |    comments
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In a state like California, where earthquakes, fires, and floods are a familiar danger, what happens if natural disaster strikes just as voters are headed to the polls?

That's what one legislator wants election officials to start thinking about with a new bill inspired by what happened last fall on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy.

"Many people were displaced," says Asm. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.  "And if they'd been in California, which is of course earthquake country, it's not clear that they'd have been able to vote."

Skinner's AB 214 asks California's secretary of state to establish rules and procedures for how an election would be conducted in the wake of a natural disaster.  The bill, introduced on January 31, would give Secretary of State Debra Bowen until the end of 2014 to do so.

"We want to make sure," says Skinner, "that nobody's disenfranchised" in the wake of a calamity.

Although elections are held every two years across California, there is no such thing as a statewide election.  State laws provide a general framework, but the vast majority of elections decisions -- polling places and pollworker training, ballot design, and more -- are made by elections officials in each of California's 58 counties.

Some of the counties already have some crisis plans in place, though this would be a much broader plan of attack.

Elections watchers say planning is a good thing.  But the bill includes one provision getting some extra attention -- and concern.

Skinner's bill says that the statewide plan should include some usage of voting via the Internet.

"There's no clear path to achieving secure online voting," says Kim Alexander of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation.

Alexander says while online voting is a popular topic, there's no way to come up with a workable system in the short time frame given in the new state legislation.  And she says some elections officials tried to use an online ballot system during the Sandy storm crisis back east -- not successfully.

"It was a big failure," says Alexander.

AB 214 has yet to be assigned its first committee hearing, which won't likely come until the spring.


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