[Image via sfchronicle]

The power outages in California’s Bay Area and elsewhere – aimed at reducing fire risk – are creating challenges for local election officials in places like Nevada County trying to keep the lights on, literally and figuratively, for voters in 2019. The Union has more:

Today Nevada County will face its third power shutoff in under a week, PG&E officials said.

Last Wednesday much of western Nevada County lost power, with many seeing it returned the following day. That was followed by another shutoff on Saturday. Those affected by those shutoffs, some of whom still had no power Monday evening, again face a power loss set to start this morning.

Scott Strenfel, chief meteorologist with PG&E, indicated Monday evening that strong winds will again lead to widespread shutoffs starting today. The winds are expected to die down Wednesday evening. No strong wind events are forecast for the first week of November.

“This does look like the strongest Santa Ana wind event for the season,” Strenfel said.

The Public Safety Power Shutoff is expected to affect portions of 29 counties, including Nevada County, cutting electricity to up to 605,000 customers, PG&E said.

These power outages are slowing, but not stopping county election officials from doing their jobs – though they worry about what will happen if these outages are necessary again next year:

Even with limited power at the Eric Rood Administrative Center, people passing through the darkened corridors can find pockets of power where county staff are getting work done.

At the county elections office, staff is able to serve the electorate for now, but county officials are already beginning to look ahead to how the 2020 presidential election would work without power.

While the recording portion of the office’s duties — dealing with deeds, birth records, marriage records and other county documents — is suspended without power, by state law the county must open election centers for eight hours a day and for at least ten days prior to a special election.

According to Assistant County Clerk Natalie Adona, while the office is confident they will handle the Nov. 5 special election with no problems, it may be different during the 2020 presidential cycle, when turnout is expected to be much higher than the 20,000 voters expected this November.

“Although we’re still chugging along and able to do a lot of things, having the power on would facilitate those activities,” Adona said. “If we’re talking about this same time next year, I may be singing a different tune.”

In the meantime, election officials are following their plans and making do with what power they have – though it is creating substantially more work on the signature verification front:

Adona said that while still preliminary, the county has been working on a contingency plan for what to do in case of a power outage next year, as state statutes governing election deadlines will need to be met amidst increased turnout, with or without power.

“We are working with the county on our contingency plans in the event of a power shutoff, which looks likely,” Adona said. “We’re having regular conversations with the county on what we are going to do in the event that this happens at the same time next year.”

According to election office officials, staff has been working around the lack of power by picking up ballots from drop-off centers, working on laptops till their battery dies and even accepting provisional ballots once their laptops die so that they can enter them into their system once electricity returns.

“We can pretty much still do everything,” election official Kristian Hamilton said. “We fortunately got a lot of work we can do without power. We need to extract ballots from envelopes and inspect them to make sure nothing is obstructing the bar code to prevent them from being scanned.”

The biggest issue election office workers face at the moment is that their Automatic Signature Verification machine is not operational, meaning staff has to verify every signature on the more than 68,000 potential ballots cast in Nevada County individually, by hand and eye.

“A lot of people kind of don’t realize the security and all of our processes that go into elections, thinking they’re insecure and the Russians are doing whatever they want but none of our machines, none of our voting equipment, none of our tabulation equipment is networked,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got locks on everything. The hard drives can’t even be removed from the computers.”

The election office is committed to keeping the process moving and secure – and is treating the outages like a learning opportunity going forward:

According to Adona, state, federal and county election officials are taking the security risks associated with power outages during an election very seriously.

“For this election I think we’re going to be OK,” Adona said. “We’ve done enough for this election to prepare for multiple power outages. All of the learning is coming in real time as it happens with the county. Fortunately, I think we have very good contingency plans on what to do.”

These public safety outages are just the latest contingency to emerge for election officials trying to keep the voting process open for business in the face of weather-related events. Kudos to old friend Adona and her new Nevada County colleagues for all their efforts … stay safe, and stay tuned!