Oct. 20 2010 10:54 AM

County supervisors must fix what the registrar broke

Dear San Diego County voter: If you received a letter from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters saying, “This form is being sent to you because your original affidavit of registration was not properly completed. Before we can complete the process of your Affidavit of Registration, we must have additional information from you,” don’t be alarmed, and don’t assume that you are not eligible to vote.

This week, CityBeat’s Dave Maass broke a story on our website that detailed how county Registrar Deborah Seiler has potentially misled thousand of voters into thinking they can’t vote on Nov. 2.

At issue are two different voter-registration forms. The California Secretary of State’s website provides a federal form, which does not ask for a voter’s place of birth. But the county Registrar’s office provides the state’s official form, which does. Yes, it’s confusing: the county uses the state form while the state uses the federal form. But this story is all about confusion, and democracy is at stake.

Every San Diego County voter who correctly filled out the federal form received a letter saying he or she didn’t provide enough information. The letter confuses matters even more by saying: “If the missing information is on line 5, this form must be returned to our office before you will be allowed to vote.” The problem is that the letter lists “birth date” and “place of birth” as lines 5 and 6 but doesn’t say which is which.

The reality is that voters who used the federal form and, therefore, didn’t provide place of birth can still vote whether or not they give the county the extra information. Seiler told Maass that she defines this as a “soft pend,” meaning the county would like the information but doesn’t require it before Election Day.

We don’t know how many people have gotten the letter. Seiler says her office has sent out between 400 and 2,200 of them per month during the current election cycle. So, if the letters started going out in, say, January, it’s possible that nearly 20,000 people got one.

Some recipients will ignore the letter and vote anyway. Others will contact the Registrar’s office and, hopefully, be straightened out. However, some people will either think they’re not allowed to vote or simply choose not to go through the hassle of contacting the Registrar’s office.

The maddening part is that none of this had to happen. The county doesn’t need know exactly where you were born; it just needs to know that you’re a U.S. citizen, which voters must swear to elsewhere on the form. What’s more, the Secretary of State sent an advisory to the counties last November that says, “Elections Officials Do Not Need to Determine Registrant’s Country or State of Birth” if the voter is using the federal form.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s advisory tells county officials that it provides the federal form online because the California Election Code requires forms to be printed on perforated paper of a certain dimension and thickness, use multiple ink colors and include pre-paid postage. The national form is not subject to the same requirements. So, by providing the state form in the county’s website, Seiler appears to be violating state law.

The Board of Supervisors must get involved immediately. They must attempt to fix this by launching a media campaign aimed at telling voters who received the letter to show up at the polls anyway on Nov. 2. They must also direct Seiler to henceforth follow the Secretary of State’s lead on voter-registration processes.

Voter turnout is low enough in this country. We need to do everything we can to make it easier to vote. The last thing we need is our local chief elections official unnecessarily going rogue and confusing voters into thinking they’re not eligible to participate in the democratic process.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.