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With the 2020 primary election one month away, Orange County election officials started mailing out ballots Monday to the county’s more than 1.6 million registered voters. Mail-in ballots are being sent to every voter in Orange County as part of multiple changes to the voting process this year.

A host of competitive local, state and federal seats are up for grabs in the March 3 election, with campaigns focusing largely on issues of homelessness, housing affordability and immigration. In most of the races, the primary election will determine which two candidates will face off in the November general election.

Starting this year, all voters will automatically receive mail-in ballots and will have opportunities to vote in person at locations across the county up to 11 days before Election Day – which includes two weekends.

The county also is switching out 1,200 traditional poll places with 188 vote centers. This is the first time Orange County will implement the vote center model as the main way of voting in person.

The centers will allow voters “to not only vote, but to solve voter registration issues, register to vote, get a replacement ballot, and get general assistance for 11 days, not just one,” according to the county Registrar of Voters website.

The centers will also use video conferencing to connect voters to bilingual specialists for language help, in addition to in-person language help available to voters. 

Officials say the system has safeguards against people illegally voting more than once. When a voter checks in at a voting center to cast a ballot, officials say they instantly update a countywide database that is visible to all of the other vote centers, Kelley said. This helps ensure each voter is casting just one ballot, officials have said.

Another change this year is a return to casting ballots by paper instead of by machine. Voters have the option of filling out a paper ballot with a pen, or using a voting machine where they verify their selection through a physical ballot print-out that they review before placing it in a scanner.

Vote centers will have 980 new voting machines – replacing the county’s previous machines, which were 17 years old when they were used for a final time last year. Voters also will have the option to drop off their ballots at 110 ballot drop-off boxes opening Monday across the county.

As of last week, Orange County had about 567,428 registered Democrats, 549,739 registered Republicans, and 416,412 voters registered as having no party preference.

Voters with no party preference can vote for presidential candidates for either the Democrat, American Independent, or Libertarian parties, as long as they requested a party’s ballot by early January. Officials say 31,834 no-party preference voters in Orange County requested Democratic presidential primary ballots.

California Republicans opted to hold a “closed” primary, meaning only registered Republicans can vote for a Republican presidential candidate in March.

Historically a Republican stronghold, Orange County has emerged as a key competitive battleground for control of Congress. Republicans will be looking to reclaim the four OC congressional seats Democrats flipped last year. 

There will be a rematch in the northern 39th District. Congressman Gil Cisneros will once again face former Assemblywoman Young Kim for the seat, who lost in 2018 by 3 percentage points. Also in the race is Steve Cox, who says he is not a member of any political party.

In the 45th District, centered on Irvine, incumbent Democrat Katie Porter has drawn six challengers, all of whom are Republicans: Yorba Linda Councilwoman Peggy Huang, Mission Viejo city councilman Greg Raths, Laguna Hills Councilman Don Sedgwick, Chapman University dean Lisa Sparks, retired teacher Rhonda Furin, and attorney Christopher J. Gonzalez.

In the 29th Senate District, former Democratic Sen. Josh Newman will face off against Republican incumbent Ling Ling Chang once again. Newman was recalled in 2018.

In the coastal  74th Assembly District, two Republicans – prosecutor Kelly Ernby and Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon – are challenging incumbent Democrat Cottie Petrie-Norris, who won the district in a surprise upset last year.

At the county level, both major parties have their sights set on the highly competitive 1st District supervisor seat, as three Democrats challenge incumbent Republican Andrew Do: Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, Westminster Councilman Sergio Contreras, and Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Nguyen.

And for the inland 3rd District supervisor seat, incumbent Republican Don Wagner faces a primary challenge from Democrat Ashleigh Aitken, an Orange County Fairgrounds board member whose father, Wylie Aitken, also serves as Voice of OC’s board chairman.

In the county Board of Education race, Republicans are seeking to hold on to their majority as Democrats seek to flip seats. Board member Ken Williams Jr., a Republican, is facing off against Democrat businessman Andy Thorburn. And three Democrats – Vickie Calhoun, Paulette Chaffee, and Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman are running against one Republican, La Habra Mayor Tim Shaw for a vacant spot on the board.

The education board’s one Democrat, Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez, is facing off against nonprofit Orange County Rescue Mission executive director Jim Palmer, a Republican, and former Orange Unified School District board member Steve Rocco, whose party affiliation is unclear.

Unlike the other races, the education board does not have a runoff in November, so the winners will be decided in the March primary.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC news intern. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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