Orange County to Overhaul Voting System Ahead of 2020 Election

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A sign guides people to vote in the June 2018 primary election polling location setup at a senior center in Santa Ana.

Orange County’s election system will undergo its biggest overhaul in years starting with the 2020 elections, under a new “vote center” model that replaces garages and other traditional polling places.

“Current trends illustrate that voters are tending toward convenience rather than physical proximity—they want to vote when, where and how they choose, and not be tied down to one specific location on one specific day,” county Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, who proposed the new system, wrote in a report about it.

“Support for the Vote Center model is very broad, encompassing the Orange County Grand Jury, city clerks, major political party representatives, veterans and seniors groups, and advocates for voters with disabilities and special language needs,” he continued.

“But most importantly, the vast majority of voters who have firsthand experience casting their ballot at a [pilot] Vote Center are satisfied with their experience and likely to return to a Vote Center in the future.”

The new system consolidates the estimated 1,200 countywide neighborhood polling stations that would have operated next year into 188 vote centers that allow earlier voting.

Voters will be able to cast ballots at any vote center up to 10 days before Election Day, which includes the two weekends before Election Day. And in a change from the current practice, voters will be allowed to cast their ballot on computers at any vote center in the county, without having to fill out a provisional paper ballot.

Each voting center would have access to a computer database of voters to prevent people from voting twice in the same election, according to Kelley.

Proponents said the new system, approved on a 4-0 vote Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors, will provide a more convenient timeframe and location options for people to vote. Supporters of the new system said it also will improve voting by having better-trained staff, who speak more languages, which is more financially feasible due to concentrating resources at fewer locations.

“The proposed voting center concept is ideal. It allows people to cast their votes 10 days beforehand, and at any voting center,” said Jeanine Robbins, an Anaheim resident and activist, during public comments Tuesday.

A total of 21 people spoke at the meeting, all in favor of the vote center change, including election observers and representatives of the League of Women Voters as well as Latino and Vietnamese-American civil rights groups.

“These voting centers are tested. This is not a hypothetical. And this is something that [is] proven to work very well in the field. And dear to our heart, is that no single political constituency or population is either advantaged or missed.” said Michele Musacchio of the League of Women Voters of Orange Coast, which she said supports the voter center change.

Public commenters, including a representative of Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares, also expressed concern that the existing polling place system, which relies on hundreds of schools as polling places, could leave children vulnerable to a school shooter, because voting takes place on Tuesdays and voters can’t be subject to the usual security screenings at school campuses.

The supervisors voted 4-0 Tuesday to implement the California Voter’s Choice Act and approve the new system with 188 vote centers replacing 1,200 polling sites. The fifth supervisor seat has been vacant since Todd Spitzer, who previously held it, was sworn in as district attorney in January. A special election for the seat is scheduled for March 12.

Kelley said the furthest distance voters would have to travel to a vote center is 1.2 miles, and many voters will be much closer to vote centers, especially those who live and work in denser areas. A map of the vote centers is expected to be developed and released this fall.

Many of the speakers Tuesday urged supervisors to choose a larger-scale vote center proposal offered by Kelley, which would have had more than twice as many vote centers – 500 voting places countywide versus the 188 the supervisors chose.

Supervisors Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett and Michelle Steel didn’t explain why they preferred the fewer number of voting places, though Supervisor Doug Chaffee said the supervisors needed to be conscious of cost and saving taxpayer money.

The wide praise Tuesday for Kelley as a county registrar – ranging from liberal public commenters to Do, a Republican county supervisor – prompted Do to smile and say he was jealous of Kelley’s “rock star status.”

Tuesday’s decision culminated years of efforts by Kelley to implement the state vote center law in Orange County. Two years ago, Kelly’s previous vote center proposal for the 2018 midterm elections was rejected by county supervisors, who opted to push the decision until after 2018.

There have been few known instances of large-scale ballot fraud in the United States in recent years. But one of the most prominent examples in decades surfaced in recent months, centered on a November Congressional race in North Carolina.

In the North Carolina case, state election officials heard testimony that a paid consultant for the Republican candidate’s campaign led an operation to collect and turn in hundreds of mail-in ballots from voters, and that a worker fraudulently marked votes for Republican candidates in blank spots on the ballots.

North Carolina’s state elections board refused to certify the election results, and last week ordered a new election for the Congressional seat.

Asked by a reporter about the North Carolina case, Kelley said the new vote center model offers additional safeguards by having better-trained workers at the vote centers, as opposed to the existing system in which polling stations are staffed by volunteer workers who receive less training.

“I think one of the things that we can do, certainly with trained employees in a controlled environment, is to be able to see that the [mail-in ballot] envelopes are filled out correctly” and verifying the name of the person dropping ballots off and their relationship to the voters.

Under North Carolina law, it’s illegal to collect and turn in mail-in ballots for other voters. California has no limit on how many mail-in ballots can be collected and turned in by someone unrelated to the voters.

California law previously restricted who could collect other people’s mail-in ballots and turn them in. But a new law that took effect for the first time in the 2018 election allowed anyone to collect unlimited mail-in ballots and deliver them to polling places, in a practice known as “ballot harvesting.”

The November election saw an unprecedented number of ballots dropped off at polling places, which Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker wrote was a “direct result of ballot harvesting allowed under California law for the first time.”

Whitaker wrote in a newsletter the Republican Party has to “develop a response to this new law that allows us to remain competitive.”

Asked about ballot security in light of the North Carolina case, Kelley emphasized it’s a crime in California to tamper with someone else’s ballot or open their sealed mail-in ballot envelope.

If a campaign worker knocks on a voter’s door and is given a sealed mail-in ballot, “it’s a felony for [them] to open it up and to change it,” Kelley said. “I can’t think of a protection that would be in place that would stop that criminal from doing that.”

“One thing I think people need to realize is, be careful who you’re turning [your] ballot over to,” Kelley said.

Asked by Voice of OC if the ballot envelope makes it clear that it’s a crime to tamper with another person’s mail-in ballot, such as opening them up or not turning them in, Kelley said it does not and that he will look into adding such language.

“You are raising a really valid point,” Kelley said. The envelopes say it’s a crime to vote twice in the same election and that the voter must sign the envelope in their own handwriting, but currently does not note it’s a crime to tamper with the ballot, he said.

“That’s something that I’m going to definitely look into” because it would be a good thing to add, Kelley said.

California in recent election cycles has held its primary elections in June, but that changes next year for the Presidential election after the state Legislature moved up the date. The statewide primary for local, state and federal candidates is scheduled for March 3, 2020.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.