Beginning with the June 2022 primary elections, hundreds of local polling sites within Riverside County may be gone. While there may be fewer sites on the Hill, the county confirms there will still be a voting center in Idyllwild.
The decision to modify the county election process began a year ago with a review of the results from the November 2020 presidential election and subsequent state legislation.
Because of COVID-19 concerns, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order to send every registered voter a ballot for the 2020 election. Prior to that election, Oregon had a statewide vote-by-mail process but this was first time in California.
Vote-by-mail was the principal reason to reassess the number and location of voting centers. After receiving their mailed ballots, voters could make their selections at home and return their ballots by mail or to a designated voting center. At those centers, as an alternative to mail-in ballots, voters could also choose to cast their ballots on machines.
Since then the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 37, establishing a permanent vote-by-mail election system in the state. The Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) enacted in 2016 established a vote-by-mail process. California counties had the option to choose or continue using their existing election systems. In 2018, five counties had opted to implement the VCA and now 15 counties are using it.
Vote-by-mail ballots are not the only major change to encourage voter turnout. Expanding the times voting centers are open for voting is just as important. Rather than voting limited to election day at one site, voting can begin earlier, four weeks before the election.
Vote-by-mail requires locations where ballots not mailed may be brought and securely deposited, and provide opportunities to replace a ballot if the mailed ballot was damaged or lost. If a voter wants a replacement ballot, staff must be available to accept the old ballot to be discarded or, if it is not returned, to designate the new ballot as provisional to ensure the voter is not casting more than one ballot.
On Dec. 14, Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer asked the board of supervisors to approve a plan for implementing VCA.
The Election Administration Plan will be presented to the public. She promised three noticed public hearings and a 14-day comment period following the last public hearing. After board approval, the plan will be submitted to the Secretary of State for approval.
One of the major consequences will be many fewer polling sites in the county.
“During the pandemic, we saw challenges we face conducting elections the old style; we had lots of polling places and we had very few poll workers who didn’t want to come to polling places because they didn’t feel safe,” 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington said during the discussion.
“The Voter’s Choice Act give us more opportunities to cast our vote … This broadens the ability to continue this great democracy of ours,” he continued in support of the changes.
Spencer explained to the board that voters now have the opportunity to cast their votes 28 days before the actual election day. During this period, a county must provide, at least one voting center for every 50,000 voters. For Riverside County, Spencer said 26 locations are needed during this period.
Then for the three days prior to the election and election day, enough centers for every 10,000 voters must be available, which expands the need for voting centers. With so many days needed, traditional polling places, such as schools and fire stations, will not be available.
According to Spencer, who used the June 2022 primary as an example, the 26 vote centers would be open from May 28 to June 3. Another 104 vote center locations would open June 4, resulting in about 130 vote centers open from June 4 to 7.
That compares to more than 600 polling places open only on election days before 2020. If all of these sites had to be open for the same hours, staffing would exceed 3,000 poll workers and cost another $7 million.
Much of this is not new to Riverside County voters. Nearly 82% of registered voters cast ballots in that election. Every registered voter received a ballot in the mail and early voting was widely available. Before Nov. 4, 2020, Election Day, nearly 650,000 ballots had been cast.
The Idyllwild Library was a designated voting center as was Camp Ronald McDonald.
The election process review the board authorized a year ago resulted in three “After Action” reports in May, August and last week.
The registrar and the committee found several challenges to implementing the new election process besides the number of polling sites. More and new equipment was needed, coordination of the voting guides and ballot mailing.
To solve and to fix these problems, the group estimated that the Registrar of Voters Office would need another $1.5 to $2 million.