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'The pomp and circumstance of voting is missing.' Some are sad without Sacramento polling places

How Sacramento County is dealing with voter questions in today’s election

The phone bank at the Sacramento Voter Registration and Elections office had fielded over 700 calls before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, about the county's new voting process.
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The phone bank at the Sacramento Voter Registration and Elections office had fielded over 700 calls before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, about the county's new voting process.

A line of voters stood Tuesday morning in front of the McKinley Library in East Sacramento waiting for it to open.

The library, a longtime polling place, has been relegated to a dropbox location as part of a new system approved by state legislators in 2016.

Unlike polling places or the new vote centers, dropbox locations are only open during regular office or business hours. Since McKinley Library doesn't open until noon on Tuesdays, that also meant voters couldn't drop off ballots until that hour.

"People are in the habit of voting the way they voted last time," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation.

She received a call at about 8 a.m. from a voter who said people were lined up at the library and didn't know where to vote. Alexander gave the woman directions to the nearest vote center on J Street and then headed over to the library where she put up a poster with information about voting options.

Dawn Olson had voted in the same place for 20 years before she dropped off her ballot at McKinley Library on Tuesday. She didn't like the change.

"To stop and look up where to go is inconvenient," she said. "I'm used to waking up and going where I vote."

She also bemoaned the end of the voting experience. "I liked the way it was because I got to see the people in my community," Olson said. "I like to celebrate community. The pomp and circumstance of voting is missing."

Susan Brill-Lehn agreed.

"For me it was sad that I didn't get to visit with the volunteers at my local polling place, " she said. "I only see them once a year, and it was fun to be able to say 'hi.' "

The new voting system replaces the county's 550 neighborhood polling places with 78 countywide vote centers, dozens of dropoff sites and an emphasis on mailing in ballots.

Vote centers offer conditional voter registration, in-person voting, replacement of vote-by-mail ballots and voting assistance. County residents can go to any vote center in the county to vote or drop off a ballot. To find a vote center, go to the county Voter Registration and Elections website.

The library responded to a tweet about the situation at McKinley by offering a link to its website, which lists library dropbox locations as well as vote centers.

Unlike dropbox locations, vote centers were open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

"Given the magnitude of the change, I think the voting has gone well," said Cathy Crosthwaite, community engagement manager for the Sacramento Public Library.

Crosthwaite said there have been some challenges, including confusion between a ballot dropbox and a vote center. She said the library would work with the county to improve the process for the November election.

Voters at the McKinley Park library in Sacramento say they had trouble figuring out which polling place to go to on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, under a new voting system approved by California legislators in 2016.

The county elections office had a steady stream of voters Tuesday, but had fewer voters dropping by than in years past, said Paige Bedegrew, county spokeswoman. She said voters seemed to be taking advantage of the drop-off boxes, as election workers had gone out more than once by midday to collect ballots

The county set up a phone bank in mid-May in anticipation of questions, but the call volume has declined in recent days, Bedegrew said.

Bedegrew expects a surge of voters after 5 p.m.

"People are creatures of habit, " she said. "This is the first time. There are still those who prefer to vote in person."

As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, 142,700 vote-by-mail ballots had been returned in Sacramento County, with another 3,000 voting in person at vote centers in the days prior to the election.

Alexander said county employees have done a good job with a difficult transition, but there always is room for improvement. She said a few simple changes could help, like printing the county Elections Department phone number on ballot envelopes or posting signs at former polling places to inform voters of their hours.

She also has asked the county to set up more external dropoff boxes like the one at the county Elections Department to ensure people could drop off ballots around the clock.

"This is a big test and we are all learning a lot about what we might do differently in the future," Alexander said.

Sacramento County’s new voting system sends ballots through the mail to every registered voter. Here's how you vote after you get your ballot.

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