Politics & Government

Sacramento County voters, don't plan on going to your usual polling place. Find a vote center

Former NBA player Matt Barnes encourages voters to get out and vote

Former NBA player Matt Barnes encourages voters to get out and vote at a press conference at the Oak Park Community Center on Monday, June 4, in Sacramento, California.
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Former NBA player Matt Barnes encourages voters to get out and vote at a press conference at the Oak Park Community Center on Monday, June 4, in Sacramento, California.

Kim Alexander is worried. The president of the California Voter Foundation is afraid that on Tuesday Sacramento County voters will stroll to the polling places they have always used, find them shuttered and won't have any idea where to vote.

"I am nervous," she said Monday. "I'm hoping for the best and preparing for confusion."

Alexander has worked with the county over the past year to implement a new voting system, which replaces the county's 550 neighborhood polling places with 78 countywide voting centers, dozens of drop-off sites and an emphasis on voting by mail.

Sacramento is the largest of the five counties participating in the pilot program approved by state legislators in 2016 as part of the new state Voters Choice Act. The other counties are San Mateo, Nevada, Napa and Madera counties.

Voting centers offer conditional voter registration, in-person voting, replacement of vote-by-mail ballots and voting assistance. County residents can go to any voting center in the county to vote or drop off a ballot. To find a voting center, go to the county Voter Registration and Elections office at 7000 65th Street, Suite A in Sacramento.

Sacramento's new voting method is very different from the model being used in the rest of the state. Voters in most California counties, including Yolo, Placer and El Dorado in the Sacramento region, will not see a change in the way they vote.

"This whole new process is a tradeoff for voters," Alexander said. "That is the big question: Will voters find this tradeoff is better for them or not? Some will find it advantageous. Some will find it to be disadvantageous. Some won't be able to tell any difference."

But voters will have to know where to vote and Alexander says many people she has encountered recently said they weren't aware of the move to countywide voting centers.

"My polling place in Land Park is California Middle School on Vallejo and it has been a polling place for decades and people are used to just walking over there," Alexander said. "I actually made a little poster to put on the door there to give them a phone number and web site to go to the nearest place to take their ballot."

She thinks free return postage would have helped people who find themselves confused on Tuesday about where to vote. They could then have just dropped their ballots in the nearest mailbox, she said.

"I think it sends a terrible message to voters to remove their local polling places and then make them pay for postage to return them," Alexander said.

She also would like to see an "I voted" sticker put in each ballot package because obtaining a sticker is one of the primary reasons people go to their polling place.

Paige Bedegrew, spokeswoman for Sacramento County, says Sacramento voters seem to be adapting to the new voting system, with 72,228 ballots returned to the county by mail through Saturday, another 35,162 at drop-off locations and 4,565 at voting centers.

The county has 741,360 registered voters.

County voters are returning ballots at a faster pace than they did for the 2014 gubernatorial election, which had 29 percent voter turnout, Bedegrew said. In comparison, there was a 47 percent voter turnout in the 2016 general election, a presidential election year when high voter turnout is expected.

Alexander worries that higher numbers of vote-by-mail ballots will mean more will be rejected. She said ballots are rejected when they arrive too late, when the ballot envelope is not signed or when the signature doesn't match the one on file.

Voters who leave off signatures or whose signatures don't match will be contacted by mail and will have eight days to provide a ballot signature, Alexander said.

The California Voter Foundation did not support the Voters Choice Act when it went through the state Legislature, but Alexander likes some of the changes, including the fact all voters get a ballot sent to their home. She also likes the requirement that counties return ballots from other counties that make it into their drop boxes.

"Some West Sacramento people think they live in Sacramento County," she said. "It's one of those things that's been a long-standing issue of mine, that we expect them to think to contact the county. Most people don't know that counties run elections."

In the past that meant those ballots were never counted, she said.

California voters can still mail in ballots, as long as they are postmarked on or before Tuesday and are received no later than three days after election day. Sign the return envelope or it can not be counted. If you don't have the proper postage the ballot will still be delivered but the bill for insufficient postage will go to your county of residence, according to U.S. Postal Service officials.

Tuesday's election will winnow the lists of candidates in most races to two, and they will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot to determine the winner.

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