Starting in March, Orange County voters will see the biggest change in years in how they cast ballots – as the county replaces 1,200 garages, schools and other traditional polling sites with 188 vote centers where ballots can be cast in person days before the election.
Among other changes, voters will have the option of delivering their mail-in ballots at any of 110 steel drop boxes around the county, and the default for people voting in person will be to fill out a printed paper ballot with a pen.
Anyone who wants to vote at a machine, including people with disabilities, can choose to do so. But unlike in prior elections, people voting on machines now will receive a physical print-out of their ballot to verify their selections and then turn it in to a scanner to be counted.
“We’ve come full circle” with paper, Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said Monday while giving a tour to reporters of a simulated vote center.
Decades ago, “it was all punch card in Orange County…and then we went to electronic [voting], and there was tremendous blowback to that from advocates and scientists and individuals…and rightly so,” Kelley said.
“I was not a fan of not having a paper trail,” he added. “So we are coming full circle. I think the country, in many jurisdictions, is doing exactly what we’re doing: going back to paper.”
Having the machines print individual paper ballots – which are formatted just like mail-in ballots – also makes it easier to audit the results to ensure the votes were counted correctly, Kelley said.
Checking in to vote centers will also be different. Previously, poll workers would ask voters for their name and address and compare it against a paper printout of registered voters within the precinct. If the information matched the printed roll, the voter would sign it.
Under the new system, voters will be asked the same questions but poll workers will use a digital tablet to verify their information.
The tablets will be digitally linked to the central voter registration database, which notes when a voter has cast a ballot and will update all of the other vote centers within minutes, Kelley said. This helps ensure each voter is casting just one ballot, he said.
Voters also will be able to cast a regular ballot at any of the 188 vote centers in Orange County, not just the closest one to their home.
Kelley said this will eliminate the main reason for provisional ballots, which last year took weeks to count after Election Day. Under the prior system that relied on paper, voters were asked to fill out provisional ballots when they showed up to vote at a different precinct from one closest to their home.
A new state law also lets people to both register to vote on Election Day and cast a ballot at any vote center. Previously, voters had to travel to the Registrar of Voters’ headquarters in Santa Ana if they wanted to register to vote on Election Day and cast a ballot in that election. Kelley said he expected to see a “busy” volume of people registering to vote the day of the election.
The March 3 election also will mark the first time Orange County voters will use new voting machines that will replace the county’s aging system from 2003. Kelley said last week that the current machines are at risk of failing and their software is no longer supported by Microsoft.
Orange County has emerged as a central battleground for control of Congress, with all four Republican seats flipping to Democrats last year and Republicans aiming to win them back next year.
Local races are also in play, with competitive races expected for state Assembly, Senate, county Board of Supervisors, and city councils.
The voter center locations aren’t yet final, but draft maps show where vote centers and ballot drop boxes could end up, based on factors like where voters live. The final locations must be set by Dec. 6, Kelley said.
Kelley has 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.
Starting 10 days before Election Day, certain vote centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then, from the weekend before the election until the day before the election, all vote centers will be open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
And on Election Day, the vote centers will be open for the state-required hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All of the locations for the 188 vote centers and 110 drop boxes will be published in the voter guides mailed to each voter weeks before the election, Kelley said.
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.”
Last November’s 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.”
But in North Carolina, a Congressional election last year was tossed out after a campaign contractor who had collected hundreds of ballots testified she tampered with ballots by marking votes for Republican candidates in blank spots.
In California, it’s a felony to tamper with a ballot, though a person dropping off other people’s ballots does not have to fill out their name on the envelope.
“The way that the law is written, it allows anybody – a campaign or an individual – to go collect any number of ballots from voters. It encourages them to fill in their information that they picked it up. It doesn’t require that they fill it in,” Kelley said Monday.
Election officials are limited under current state law, aside from poll workers asking questions of people dropping off ballots or people coming forward to his office or law enforcement with reports of ballot tampering, he added.
“I don’t have the tools to do any kind of enforcement on that. You’re relying on the individual that’s picking those up, or the campaign, to comply with the law,” Kelley said.
“If it were a large conspiracy, it’s very likely that that would bubble to the surface, especially in a county the size of Orange [County],” he added. “If you go to an extended length and you’re going to really do it on an expanded level, those things bubble to the surface. Look at North Carolina.”
Vote center employees “will be on the lookout” for potential fraud, Kelley said. If someone dropping off a large number of ballots refuses to say who they are, employees can report it to the election office, encourage the person to fill out their information, and officials can determine what campaign they’re with and talk to the campaign, he said.
The new vote center model, and about 980 new voting machines, will be fully implemented for the first time for the March 3, 2020 primary election.
The last election under the current voting machines will be a series of special elections in less than two months, on Nov. 5. The elections are for seats on the Santa Ana City Council, Santa Ana Unified School District, and San Clemente City Council, and two ballot measures in Stanton to tax marijuana business and increase hotel taxes.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].