Tuolumne and Calaveras counties will be unable to implement a new way of handling elections in 2018 due to a lack of funding and other concerns, according to local elections officials.

Both counties were among 14 in a pilot group allowed to implement the system next year. However, a recently clarified requirement to issue so-called “live” ballots, also referred to as “regular” ballots, at voting centers means the counties would have to purchase additional equipment.

“We’re building the Law and Justice Center and doing a lot of stuff,” said Debi Bautista, Tuolumne County registrar of voters. “I don’t know where to pull that money from.”

Under the new system that goes statewide in 2020, registered voters in participating counties will be automatically sent a ballot 28 days before an election that they can return by mail, take to a drop-off location or cast in-person at a voting center in their county.

The new system was authorized through Senate Bill 450, known as the Voter’s Choice Act, that was passed by the California State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

Elections officials are optimistic the new system will boost voter turnout as it has in other states that have adopted the model, which includes Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Colorado’s voter participation rate over the past three general elections since the state adopted the system in 2012 was an average of about 17.5 percentage points higher than that of California.

Colorado has also ranked 3rd or 4th for eligible voter participation among all 50 states in the past three general elections, while California ranked 41st in 2012, 43rd in 2014 and 37th in 2016.

“I really do think this is the way to go,” said Bautista. “Once the voters are made aware of the new changes and can pick the days or times to vote, we’ll have better turnout.”

The system would consolidate the 27 polling places to four voting centers in locations throughout the county. Those centers would be open 10 days before an election, giving voters more time to hit the polls as opposed to just Election Day.

Bautista said the plan was to have vote-by-mail ballots at each voting center that could be placed in envelopes which identify the person’s precinct, of which Tuolumne County has 73.

However, the Secretary of State Office’s clarified in August that the idea behind the new system is also to preserve the traditional experience of casting a regular ballot that the voter can place directly in a ballot box without an envelope.

The office stated that casting a regular ballot is to “ensure a voter with a disability can vote privately and independently.”

Having to issue regular ballots at each center that are separated by precincts means the county would have to buy multiple machines to print them out at each of the four centers.

Without the printing machines, Bautista said the fact that anyone could vote at any of the four centers would require keeping an inventory of possibly between 75 and 80 separate ballot types at each. Being able to issue vote-by-mail ballots that could be put in an envelope would reduce the number of types to an estimated seven or eight.

“There is no logical way that I can have every single ballot typed for every single voting center and have them accounted at every precinct without it costing money,” Bautista said.

Rebecca Turner, Calaveras County registrar of voters, expressed similar concerns in an email Thursday about the need to issue live ballots at the voting centers.

Turner also stated the county still has yet to receive finalized regulations for “Drop Boxes,” of which the county is required to have two, or Internet security regulations. She said they are not confident the county’s current election management system would protect against people voting twice under the new Voter’s Choice Act model, although the county’s vendor is working on a fix.

The county still plans to move ahead with implementing the new way of handling elections in 2020, Turner stated, adding that it will promote better turnout, give voters more time to cast their ballot, and still provide voters the ability to cast it in-person at a voting center.

“It has been decided it is in the best interest of the voters of Calaveras County not to move forward in 2018 with the Voter’s Choice Act,” Turner stated. “This will provide us with feedback from other California counties that have already implemented the new model, while we draft the plan that best suits our county.”

One way the state Legislature plans to provide funding for counties to purchase the equipment needed to implement the new system is through Assembly Bill 668, also known as the Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2018.

The bill, which passed in the Assembly on May 31 by a 56-19 vote, would raise $450 million from bonds to upgrade elections equipment throughout the state.

California voters would decide whether to authorize the bonds in the June 2018 primary election if the bill is passed by the state Senate and signed into law by Brown.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.