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Tomorrow is the deadline to register to vote under Orange County’s new voting system.

And in just a couple of days, Orange County voters can for the first time cast their ballot in a dramatically-overhauled voting system that means changes to when, where, and how people vote in the upcoming March 3 primary election.

Election day in Orange County is now stretched out over 11 days this year, as some of the county’s 188 new vote centers — which allow voters to cast their ballot regardless of where they live — will open up to the public for voting on Saturday, Feb. 22.

All the changes are under the watchful eye of county political activists, partisans and pros looking for the new model’s possible effects on voter turnout and whether those effects could shift the balance of power in the county’s local, state and national elected offices during a crucial election year.

Of the county’s around 1.6 million registered voters, nearly 576,000 are registered Democrats while nearly 555,000 are registered Republicans, according to the most recent data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

The number of ‘No Party Preference’ voters was over 414,000.

“The new vote system has some pluses and some minuses,” said Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker on Friday.

“The biggest positive” is the new integrated database that vote center staff will use to ensure that voters’ registration information is up to date and that they haven’t already voted, Whitaker said, adding that “it should diminish the number of provisional ballots” that require additional work by elections officials to verify the eligibility of a voter.

Whitaker said a “potentially negative side” for his party’s voters is that Republicans “tend to live more in suburbs and are used to voting in their precincts” and that changes to the voting locations might prove problematic for “voters tend to be a little older and may not have as many transportation options.”

“We’re very concerned about that and watching it closely,” Whitaker said.

Registrar staff at a Thursday public outreach event in Buena Park said the process behind determining the locations of the 188 vote centers around the county weighed factors like population centers, vote-by-mail usage, rate of household vehicle ownership, and the availability of public transportation.

Whitaker also expressed concern about the county mailing every registered voter a vote-by-mail ballot, regardless of whether they asked for one, because “we do always have a concern that when you mail a ballot to everyone, regardless of if they asked for it, there’s risk of that ballot being misused, taken by someone else and submitted in.”

Vote-by-mail ballots have already gone out to every registered voter, regardless of whether they requested one.

Those ballots can be dropped off at any of the 110 ballot-drop box locations throughout the county, aside from mailing the ballots back to the Registrar’s office. Registrar staff maintain the boxes are secure, made of military-grade material and monitored by teams of two workers throughout the day.

Orange County election officials started mailing out 1.6 million vote-by-mail ballots to voters on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Of the around 1.6 million vote-by-mail ballots issued by the Registrar earlier this month, just over 68,000 have been returned, according to county data. Nearly 22,000 of those ballots are Democratic ballots, while more than 15,000 of them are Republican.

Orange County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño called the changes “fantastic” for giving county residents “more options for a longer period of time,” and said she’s “really hopeful” the changes will drive voter turnout.

In 2018, the county became a key battleground for control over Congress, with all four Republican seats flipping to Democrats last year and Republicans aiming to win them back this year.

Though a majority of local offices are still held by Republicans, Briceño said she’s confident that ongoing demographic shifts and attitudes toward national politics will prompt Democrats in the county to “come out into the polls and vote Democratic values.”

She pointed out the fact that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the county, adding “There’s a trend here.”

There are other changes for Orange County voters that come from the state level.

California lawmakers in 2017 shifted the state’s national role with an earlier primary this year — previously the state’s primary took place in June — and Gov. Gavin Newsom this month signed a law that makes it easier for people to switch parties within the two weeks leading up to election day without having to re-register to vote.

All these changes are leaving all sides guessing how the March primary will turn out.

Whitaker notes, “Both parties are trying to figure out how these new changes are going to work.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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