Try, Try Again: Orange County, CA Adopts Vote Centers

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Two years after a surprising – and controversial – rejection, Orange County, CA supervisors voted to transition to a vote center model aimed at improving the election experience and cutting costs. The Register has more:

Say goodbye to your neighborhood polling place.

Orange County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to overhaul its voting system by eliminating precincts polls, replacing them with vote centers, and automatically sending every registered voter a mail ballot beginning in 2020.

The move to join a small but growing number of counties with polling centers — which are designed to make voting easier and boost turnout — could save the county as much as $29 million. It also is aimed at meeting the needs of an electorate that now relies heavily on mail-in balloting, a fact that renders the county’s nearly 1,200 precinct polls more costly and less necessary.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelly, who proposed the change, said the new system “is the most efficient model and the most cost-effective model.”

The action will shutter precincts polls and replace them with 188 vote centers, most of which will be within a mile of current polling places. Those centers will be open for in-person voting 10 days prior to elections, including weekends, giving voters a longer opportunity to cast their ballots. Nearly 100 new secure drop boxes also will provide additional places to hand in mail ballots.

Voters also won’t be constrained to cast their ballots in a single location. Instead, under the new model, locals eventually will be able to visit any vote center in the county and get a freshly-printed ballot tailored to their local races rather than a provisional ticket.

Kelly said the opportunity for people to vote early, and the elimination of hand-counted provisional ballots, will mean faster final election results, cutting a certification process that now takes about a month down to two weeks. That means political winners will be determined sooner – good news for those who were frustrated by the post-election counts during the region’s closely-watched 2018 congressional contests.

The vote stands in sharp contrast to a rejection by the county board in 2017 that was widely acknowledged – and criticized – as partisan:

The board’s decision reversed past resistance from supervisors who in 2017 shot down a similar proposal.

At the time, some Republican supervisors worried the changes could allow for election fraud or undue influence from people collecting ballots to deposit them in drop boxes. Other GOP leaders – including the California Republican Party – have continued to assert that the new system would benefit Democrats, with some worrying it would encourage liberal low-propensity voters to cast ballots.

That GOP opposition prompted California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, to accuse Orange County supervisors in 2017 of playing partisan politics and fomenting unfounded fear of election fraud.

This time around, the board was apparently swayed in large part by public support for the plan:

But on Tuesday, supervisors embraced the new plan after dozens of Orange County residents spoke at the meeting and wrote to the board, urging leaders to adopt the vote center model.

The residents described how busy polling places with long lines and limited hours on Tuesday election days – a workday for most – often dissuaded locals from voting.

Anne Hughitt, a Ladera Ranch resident, said that many of her neighbors didn’t vote in 2018 because their local polling place, an elementary school, didn’t have enough parking.

“We need more days for people to get into the polling places,” Hughitt said. “People want to be able to have options to have their voice heard and their vote counted.”

Local school officials also pushed for vote centers. They noted that nearly 400 schools were used as precinct polls in 2018, and that the new model will lower that number and reduce the security concerns that come when adults visit campuses to vote.

It also helps that the model has been adopted – and seems to be working – elsewhere:

It’s also possible supervisors were influenced by results in counties that recently adopted the vote center model. In November, five California counties that use vote centers — Sacramento, Madera, Napa, Nevada, and San Mateo — all saw higher voter participation, outperforming the state average by 4 to 15 percentage points, with no voting irregularities or partisan advantages.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who voted against the proposal in 2017, said she has come to see the new voting model as an important step for the county.

“We will now move into the 21st century in regards to our voting system and process,” Bartlett said.

The county’s newest Supervisor, Doug Chaffee, a Democrat, noted that reducing the number of voting locations will result in better-trained staff at each vote center.

And now the work to prepare for the new system begins:

The new system won’t be in effect for the special election for county supervisor, which is slated for March 12.

Instead, the county has about a year to implement the new system before California’s presidential primary, which is slated for March 3, 2020. Kelly said the voting process in that election will be something of a hybrid, with the new vote centers up and running while using older voting equipment. But by November of next year, the county should have all new voting machines and the vote center model will be in place.

Kelly said his office will handle public outreach. He plans to use a variety of mediums — from television and radio ads to community association newsletters — to tell the county that all registered voters will receive mail-in ballots and polling precincts will be replaced by voting centers.

The switch to vote centers could save money. The new equipment needed under the voting center model could cost about $11.2 million, less than the estimated $40 million that was expected to be spent to replace existing voting equipment that would have been needed if the vote center model had been rejected. However, final costs for the new model won’t be known until after the contract goes out to bid.

The California legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act in 2016, allowing counties to swap out traditional voting models for vote centers and universal mail-in balloting. Several other counties are considering a similar switch in time for the 2020 presidential primary.

This vote is a huge accomplishment for Orange County, and especially registrar Neal Kelley, who is a nationally-respected leader in the election community and someone who has worked very hard to bring changes like these to California and the nation as a whole. Congratulations, Neal – and now your prize is to work like crazy to have all this ready for 2020! Stay tuned …

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