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Brandi Orth, Fresno County clerk and registrar of elections, explains the election process.

Brandi Orth said she gave a presentation not long ago and was asked about Russian involvement in local elections.

Orth is Fresno County’s clerk and registrar of elections, so her voice on the matter has more authority than most. She was appointed in 2012 by the county board of supervisors and re-elected in 2014 and 2018.

“The Russians are not in Fresno County,” she said, recounting her response that day. But then Orth said a woman in the audience pointed out her error. 

“He’s Russian, and he’s sitting right here,” the woman said.

Orth talked about elections, “dead” voters and other issues related to casting ballots recently at a luncheon meeting of the Sanger Rotary club. Her Russian anecdote got a hearty laugh from the audience. Getting ballots correctly counted and the results back to voters is Orth’s job, and she said it’s a role she takes seriously. And she discussed just what it takes to get every vote into the system.

“During her tenure as county clerk, Brandi has successfully administered 26 elections, including presidential elections,” said Lee Delap, a Rotary member, in his introduction. “She has incorporated efficiencies in the election process to the benefit of the voters of Fresno County.”

Orth’s presentation included a PowerPoint that included statistics and videos of the various machines involved, some that print each ballot and others that count them. She said her department has 24 staffers and that they “have to be experienced and knowledgeable of the law.”

But that’s just the start. Another 70 workers, call them “extra help,” contribute at the office and county elections warehouse during elections. Add to that the 50 election coordinators who supervise those in the field and the 1,700 precinct officers. 

Orth said her department must train and hire about 2,000 for the various roles because about 300 can drop out. And she said these staffers help keep the 10 “voted-ballot drive-through locations” operating.

“That’s a lot of people to find, serve and train,” she said. “Election night at 8 p.m., the day doesn’t end. It kind of begins our swing shift.”

She was full of statistics. And while voting is last year’s news, new requirements pop up all the time. Democratic challengers have even started declaring their intent for running for president and challenging President Donald Trump in the next presidential election not even two years away now.

As of June 2018, Fresno County had 440,617 registered voters. Democrats made up 170,384 of that total and Republicans 151,483. Another 96,162 gave no party preference. By the November election, the overall register voter number had grown to 456,891, an increase of about 4 percent. Democrats increased by about 2 percent, Republicans by less than 1 percent and no party preference by 13 percent.

It’s when Orth talked about the scope of the elections in Fresno County that the statistics made her job appear complicated. She said when the candidate filing period closed on Aug. 10, 2018 that it got busy. Real busy.

“We served 368 candidates in a four-week period,” she said. “And some we see multiple times.”

Orth talked about how ballots are assembled and how each one must reflect exactly the right races for each voter. She overlapped the various districts and jurisdictions like a big layer cake. Each ballot this past election included the big races, such as presidential, governor and U.S. senator. Then came divisions with congressional districts Nos. 4, 16, 21 and 22; senate districts Nos. 8, 12 and 14; and state assembly districts Nos. 23 and 31.

There were also 26 school districts with 40 races, 14 cities with 28 races, seven special districts with seven races, 11 state propositions that appeared on all ballots and 15 local measures from schools, cities or special districts.

That’s a lot of different jurisdictions and ballots.

“Our job is to make sure you get the right ballot for you to vote,” Orth said.

And that’s not simple. The hardware is complicated and the software used must meet federal, state and county certifications. And it must put up with a lot of expectations.

“The elections process is a very condensed period of time,” Orth said. “We ran 5,500 test ballots to make sure everything was (running properly.)”

That testing process requires a lot of people, she said. And they operate in secure facilities.

Sometimes Orth said she gets calls from voters. “One caller said, ‘You gave me the wrong ballots,’” she said. “’You gave me a Republican ballot and my wife a Democratic one.’”

But Orth said a photographic record of the ballots sent showed that the right ones had been sent. The couple checked and it turned out he had hers and she had his.

Orth said more than half of registered voters opt for the vote-by-mail option. She discussed how signatures are verified and how those that don’t match go for further review. She said a normal change in signature is natural over time, and in those cases she and her staff request that the voter update the county voting records with a new signature. 

“I give my staff forensic hand-writing training,” she said. “We’re looking for slant, pressure. We got through this very deliberately and carefully.”

Voting by mail appears to be preferred by those in the elections business since the ballots are returned and can be counted early. However, problems can arise when people vote while eating dinner or a snack. “I don’t know what it is about Fresno County voters,” she said. “They like to eat and drink while they vote.”

That often means the soiled ballots can’t be machine counted. 

Orth also talked about how records are updated constantly with state data and even local obituaries to make sure nobody’s using a dead person’s ballot. “We go through everything we can,” she said. 

“We only work off active rolls.”

Orth also talked about the law, effective at the start of 2018, that allowed anybody to return a ballot for a voter so long as they signed the sealed ballot indicating they were the ones who delivered it. “Never give an unopened ballot to anyone because bad things can happen,” she said.

As for the integrity of elections in this country, the National Conference of State Legislatures had this to say about the system that allows each state to control its own ballot boxes: “This decentralization allows individual jurisdictions to experiment and innovate — to see how elections might best be run for the state and the locality’s particular circumstances. The dispersed responsibility for running elections also makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rig U.S. elections at the national level. It also holds authorities in local jurisdictions accountable for the management of their own elections, so if something goes wrong citizens can go directly to their local government rather than blame problems on the distant federal government.”

And Orth is available to constituents with questions. She’s busy, however.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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