Sacramento County eyes dramatic shift to vote-by-mail under new law

Stacks of provisional ballots wait to be counted for the race between Rep. Ami Bera and Doug Ose in November 2014 at the Sacramento County elections office.
Stacks of provisional ballots wait to be counted for the race between Rep. Ami Bera and Doug Ose in November 2014 at the Sacramento County elections office. Sacramento Bee file

This November’s presidential election could mark the last time many California voters fill out ballots at a polling place, including traditionalists who have long resisted the trend of voting by mail.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Thursday allowing Sacramento and 13 other counties to eliminate most neighborhood polling places and send ballots to all voters starting in 2018. Sacramento County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine said this week that she hopes to shift voters toward a mail ballot system in two years.

Under Senate Bill 450, counties will be required to offer “vote centers” where people can fill out their ballots and turn them in. But based on current voter registration, Sacramento County would only have to open 73 vote center locations instead of the 548 polling places it plans to operate for the Nov. 8 election.

SB 450 sets California on the same path as Colorado and some other states that have created vote centers and ballot drop-off boxes in response to the soaring use of mail ballots and shrinking numbers of polling place voters.

Proponents of SB 450 contend it will allow people to vote early more easily. Skeptics, though, have raised concerns that the centers could hurt voter turnout because many prefer to vote at their neighborhood polling place.

LaVine said Sacramento County would be able to cut costs because fewer polling places would reduce the number of machines needed to replace its aging voter technology. The county would get rid of its smallest polling places, such as those located in private garages, and focus on using community centers and churches.

Consolidation could mean that voters will lose nearby neighborhood precincts, but gain amenities such as ample parking at the locations that become vote centers.

“We wouldn’t have some of the issues that we have right now with our polling places,” she said.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said her organization formally took a neutral position on the bill but expressed some concerns to the Legislature. California has a high rate of mail ballot rejection compared with other states and that’s just among voters choosing to vote by mail, Alexander said. The bill also doesn’t require counties to pay postage for the ballots, which could disenfranchise some voters.

“Most counties don’t cover the postage now, but (voting by mail is) seen as a convenience,” she said.

Alexander also said voting in person or in public can be very important to communities, particularly communities of color who have had their voting rights suppressed in past elections.

Besides that, “people like the ritual of it,” she said.

Of the approximately 344,000 Sacramento County voters who participated in the June primary, one-third voted at polling places and the rest participated by mail.

In regular elections, SB 450 requires that counties create one vote center for every 50,000 registered voters within 10 days of Election Day. That would mean 15 vote centers would open in Sacramento County more than a week early, based on the county’s current registration of nearly 730,000 voters. Three days before the election, the county would have to expand the number of vote centers to 73.

Additionally, the county would have to establish 49 ballot drop-off locations nearly a month before the election.

Besides Sacramento, counties authorized to use the centers by 2018 include Orange, Calaveras, Inyo, Madera, Napa, Nevada, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Shasta, Sierra, Sutter and Tuolumne. All other counties, including Los Angeles, would be covered by the law in 2020.

In Sacramento County, the machines that count votes are already two years beyond their useful life, though they will be adequate for this election, according to a county report.

Grooves in the ballot feed tray of the central count equipment shred the edges of some mail-in ballots, and the ballot layout software is outdated to the point that the county has to pay the system vendor $70,000 for layout and coding each election, the report said. A temporary fix has been approved for the grooves in the feed tray, but it’s only expected to be effective this year.

LaVine said she hopes the county can replace the machines by 2018. Certified staff are repairing and adjusting as necessary, she said, but the county needs new technology. Under the new vote center system, new machines would cost about $4 million. Replacing the old system would have cost the county $8 million.

At a board meeting Tuesday, county Supervisor Susan Peters asked LaVine to conduct outreach to see how voters would react to the changes.

“I think I would probably like to see some – pardon, I’m not trying to make a pun – but polling of our constituents in Sacramento County as to how they feel about this,” she said. “When we’ve talked about some of these issues before, I know we’ve had people come and say ‘I want to go to my polling place.’ 

Jim Miller contributed to this report.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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