Confusing and inconsistent direction from the California Secretary of State's Office has led the state to misuse millions of federal dollars earmarked to improve voting systems, according to a state audit released Thursday.
Widespread allegations of uneven vote-counting practices accompanied the 2000 presidential election, which the U.S Supreme Court effectively decided. The Help America Vote Act, enacted two years later, allocated money for states to train poll workers and update their voting systems -- in some cases, counties continued to rely on punch-card systems.
California received more than $380 million, according to the auditor's report. But the state's methods for distributing that money were plagued by murky standards and a lack of clarity about whether counties could use new voting systems, State Auditor Elaine Howle's office found. At least $22 million went to new voting machinery, like touch-screens, that counties ended up mothballing.
"Some counties have collectively spent millions of federal HAVA funds on voting systems they cannot fully use," the report reads. "Under state law, counties cannot purchase new voting systems unless such systems have been approved by the secretary of state. However, different secretaries of state have reached different conclusions on the suitability of counties using certain voting systems."
The audit was requested by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who is running for secretary of state in 2014.
In an interview, spokeswoman Shannan Velayas argued that California has led the nation in tackling voting issues and pointed to a comprehensive review of voting regulations that current Secretary of State Debra Bowen called for when she took office in 2007.
"Of course we can always improve, and we have demonstrated adaption along the way with the decade-long evolution of the Help America Vote Act," Velayas said, adding that the office "does agree with the recommendation that we need to make it a priority to develop regulations describing voting system standards" and has begun drafting rules.
The auditor found that part of the explanation for an inefficient use of voting funds lies in the state lagging behind its commitment to put uniform standards in place.
"During our audit, we expected to see regulations or other criteria defining the requirements and specifications for voting systems because, since 1994, state law has required the Office to develop these regulations in connection with the secretary of state's review and approval process for voting systems. ... However, the Office has not yet developed such regulations and told us it hopes to have them drafted by October 2013 and in effect by January 2015," the report concludes.
Of the federal money allocated to California, more than $131 million remains parked in a special fund. Before it can be distributed, the Secretary of State's Office must confirm that California is complying with regulations in the Help America Vote Act.
But the state is already complying with those guidelines, the auditor's office notes, raising questions about why California hasn't already moved to free up funding so counties could use the money to update their voting systems.
Under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, California has committed to transition from its current CalVoter system to a digital voter registration database called VoteCal. State officials told the auditor's office that they are waiting to launch VoteCal before certifying that California's voting standards align with federal requirements.
The auditor's report questions that rationale, noting that the state's first attempt to institute the VoteCal system foundered and cost California at least $4.6 million, offering "no significant long-term benefit to the State's voters."
"The lack of a fully deployed VoteCal system should not prevent the Office from declaring that the State has complied with (federal) requirements ... doing so would provide the Legislature with greater flexibility regarding where future HAVA spending should be directed," the report states.
The report also faults California's implementation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 -- commonly called the "motor-voter law" -- that requires states to offer visitors to public agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles the chance to register to vote.
"Our review of some California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in Sacramento found that the driver's license application does not act as a simultaneous
application for voter registration," the report reads.
PHOTO: UC Davis students line up to vote at a campus polling place set up at Memorial Union on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Autumn Payne.