County Clerk Gail Pellerin on navigating the 2012 primary
Gail Pellerin has the best job in Santa Cruz County—or at least that’s how she feels about her post as Santa Cruz County Clerk, which she has been doing for more than a decade. After paying her way through a four-year degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Pellerin worked at newspapers and on the radio, but found herself longing to be more directly involved in the governmental decision-making processes.
“I remember covering board meetings sometimes and thinking, ‘Why don’t they just do this?’” she says. “So I started working for a member of the state assembly’s office and ended up working in Sacramento for the Speaker’s Office of Majority Services when Willie Brown was speaker. Working for him, I got a great education on how the state is run, the budget, the challenges, and I ran several campaigns.”
By the time Pellerin married and moved to her husband’s home in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1992, she was “ready to give up the harsh political life.”
“It’s really hard being in politics sometimes and I really just wanted to stand back and be more objective, so I became the elections manager [in 1993] and [have] worked here ever since,” she says.
The Office of Sex and Politics
Pellerin became County Clerk in 2000, and she says she is now able to work with all political parties in an unbiased setting.
“I definitely maintain an objective, nonpartisan office,” she says. “We don’t show favoritism or anything, and I think over the years I’ve earned the respect of the various political constituencies here in Santa Cruz.”
While she has taken a stand on a few major issues, she does not do so regarding ballot issues. For example, she would never be in an ad for or against Prop. 8, but is a strong advocate for same-sex marriage.
“It’s a fine line, I know, and there are colleagues of mine who caution me about voicing my position on marriage equality, but I feel like it’s as much of an issue as if they took the right to vote away from women,” she says. “I would be an advocate for that, to make sure voting is accessible and open to everyone eligible over the age of 18.”
While Pellerin’s office manages everything from issuing passports and keeping the record on redistricting to filing fictitious business names and conducting wedding ceremonies, she says their most involved job is to oversee the elections process.
“We do everything in the area of conducting elections, from registering voters to educating voters, to printing ballots and counting votes and processing petitions, conducting the election, certifying the election, maintaining campaign reports—all the different pieces of the election,” she says, noting that her offices are not the election hub for the four cities within Santa Cruz County, but that they work closely with the city clerks to help with city measures and city council elections.
“I love people coming in who are first-time voters,” she says. “Maybe that 18-year-old who is voting for the first time, or someone who’s lived and worked in this country became a citizen at the age of 60 and they’re casting their first vote. … It’s great to see it in action, to see democracy in action.”
According to Pellerin, the worst elections to organize are June elections— like the upcoming California Presidential Primary on June 5—because they compete with seasonal events like graduations, weddings, final exams and vacations.
As the June primary approaches, those checkmark-shaped red V’s pop up on billboards, pins and posters as reminders to vote. But considering that more than 263,000 people live in Santa Cruz County alone, how much difference does a single vote actually make?
All the difference, according to Pellerin.
“We’ve had tie votes before, and they chose to resolve the winner by lot,” she says, recalling suggesting that the winners play a round of musical chairs the last time this happened. “Sometimes we have people winning by one vote. It really, truly is a good example of how every vote counts. If you’re registered, you should really get out and vote. There’s no excuse not to.”
Pellerin notes that there are many ways to cast a vote in Santa Cruz.
“You can vote early in person, by mail, at the polls, we’ll deliver a ballot to you if you can’t get out to get a ballot,” she says. “We have a program for incarcerated voters, we have a great outreach program up at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo, we do a senior residential facility outreach to various places throughout [the county] and we do a lot with voters with specific needs as far as maintaining access to all of our polls and services.”
Understanding New Changes
The logistics of the impending June 5 election are proving to be somewhat topsy-turvy. District lines have shifted, a new “top two” primary system is in place, polling sites have moved, and an entire column on the ballot is dedicated to the 24 people running for U.S. Senate.
Before you rush home to rifle through the stack of unopened mail next to your front door in panicked search of your 2012 Voter Guide, Pellerin notes that you can go online or download the new Voter Guide Now App for easy access to election information. (See “Paperless Progress.”) She also reminds voters that the election is not a test, and it is OK to leave things blank.
In addition, Pellerin shares the following three pieces of advice for how to navigate the many irregularities that will color the June 5, 2012 Primary Election.
1) Top Two Primary
Pellerin says the biggest surprise to voters may be the Top Two Primary, which implements the California Top Two Primaries Act, a.k.a. Proposition 14. This piece of legislation amended the state constitution in 2010 and took effect in 2011.
Previous to Top Two, each official political party could put one candidate on the General Election ballot for all party races.
With Top Two Primary voting, people can vote in the primary election for any candidate for a congressional or state elective office without regard to the political party affiliations of either the candidate or the voter. When the general election rolls around, only the “top two” candidates, meaning those that received the most votes in the primary election, will be on the General Election ballot for most political races.
However, Pellerin says voters should be forewarned that the office of the president is still elected by party, as the Top Two Primary policy does not apply in the same way to the race for office of the United States president.
While people may expect their primary ballots to allow them to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for example, such is not the case. Voters will receive a ballot based on the way they are registered to vote, and the deadline to re-register with a different party passed on May 21.
Pellerin notes that there are also some non-public party central committee positions that are and will be elected by political party only, but once people get past the office of president and the central committee positions, if you happen to have that on your ballot, everybody is voting on the same contest with the same candidates.
People registered to vote with no party affiliation, meaning either Decline to State, Independent (not American Independent Party), or Nonpartisan, are considered No Party Preference (NPP) Voters. NPP primary ballots do not allow a vote for presidential candidates.
If an NPP voter wants to vote for president in the upcoming primary election, they are allowed to vote only on Democratic Party ballot or American Independent Party ballots, but must specifically request one of these ballot types.
To find out which party you registered with you can look on the back cover of your Sample Ballot and Voter’s Information Pamphlet where your party is printed next to your name and address. If you did not register with a party, it says NPP. You can also call the Santa Cruz County Elections Department office at 454-2060 or visit their website, votescount.com.
Pellerin says there may be some voter confusion now that district lines have shifted this year and everything has been renumbered.
Santa Cruz County was formerly split into two state senate districts, but now it is only one: the old state senate District 15 is now District 17, and Santa Cruz has two new assembly district lines, 29 and 30.
On the congressional side, Santa Cruz is still split between two congressional districts, but those lines changed a bit as well, and have new numbers. Santa Cruz is now split between congressional District 18 and congressional District 20.
The local Board of Supervisors district lines have also changed.
“I know somebody here in this office used to be in the 5th supervisorial district, and they’re now in the first supervisorial district because the line changed to basically line up with Highway 17,” says Pellerin.
Now, if you’re driving to Santa Cruz from San Jose, the places on the left are in the first supervisorial district, and places on the right are in the fifth.
“We also have a district line that goes through one of the colleges up at UCSC, which is horrible because we have to know what dorm unit you’re in to put you in the right district,” she says.
Pellerin says the best thing to do if you are wondering where you fall as far as district lines is to call her office and they will explain where you fall.
3) Polling Sites and Workers
Something that changes every election, as much as Pellerin would like it to remain the same, is the location of polling sites.
This year, the former Holiday Inn next door to the County Building, which has been used for years as a polling site, is being remodeled and is unavailable during the June primary.
Voters can check their sample ballot booklet to see where they’re going to vote. They may be in a mail ballot precinct this time, which means their precinct has 250 or fewer voters, which means the Clerk’s Office will automatically mail them a ballot rather than set up a polling site fore them.
People can also go online to the election department website and look up where they go vote. The site links directly to Google maps and provides directions how to walk or drive to the polling site.
This year, not only have polling sites been hard to come by, so have poll workers. Pellerin reminds voters that a great way to be at the front lines of the action on Election Day is to work at the polls for a day. Clerks at the polls are paid $75 per day, and inspectors are paid $100, plus extra for training.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5. Learn more at the Election Department Website, votescount.com.