When Sacramento County supervisors agreed last year to join a pilot of the Voter’s Choice Act, swapping out hundreds of polling places for dozens of new “vote centers,” they did so promising the public that it would be easier to register to vote and cast a ballot. And it probably will be — that is, unless you’re homeless.
For reasons that remain unclear, county officials have brushed off pleas from homeless advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union to put one of its vote centers on or near the campus of Loaves & Fishes for the June 5 primary. The supervisors also declined to send a mobile vote center there, citing the additional cost.
The county's decision, while certainly following the letter of the Voter’s Choice Act, absolutely violates the spirit of it.
Sacramento is one of only five counties in California — and, by far, the most populous — to get the program up and running for the primary election. More than 500 polling places will be replaced by 78 high-tech vote centers, some of which will remain open for several days, including over two weekends.
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Given California's stubbornly low turnout for elections, the Legislature, in approving the Voter's Choice Act in 2016, set a goal of increasing overall participation by letting people go to any voter center to turn in their mail ballots, or register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.
The target population includes people who are disabled or have mobility issues, aren't registered to vote, or have limited access to a vehicle or other forms of transportation. Coincidentally, these are the exact same demographics of the 800 to 1,000 homeless people who flock to Loaves & Fishes every weekday.
The Sacramento County Department of Voter Registration and Elections insists it has done its best. A spokeswoman told a member of The Bee's editorial board that the county spent months examining Census data and meeting with the community, including holding a series of workshops to educate voters about the changes. As it stands, the ratio of registered voters to vote centers exceeds the requirements of the Voter's Choice Act.
That's great for voters with homes, but that doesn't do much for homeless people who want to have a say in local, state and national races.
The nearest vote center to Loaves & Fishes will be about a mile and a half away — ironically, downtown at the Sacramento County Administration Building, where the Board of Supervisors meet. While that might not sound all that far to most people, the county's homeless population skews older and grayer. Many are in wheelchairs or have other issues walking a block, much less a mile.
Rather than making excuses about why it can't go the extra mile to make it easier for people to cast ballots, county officials should be doing all that they can to increase voter participation, even among the homeless.
It’s too late to do that for the June primary, but not for the November election.