Santa Ana Officials Raise Questions Over Voter Access “Desert” In City’s Crowded South End

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

An official ballot drop box located in front of the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana on July 10, 2020.

What started as a routine presentation to Santa Ana City Council members by a county elections official about this November’s voting options turned into alarm bells about potential inaccessibility to the ballot box for many residents.

During a slideshow presentation at the council’s Tuesday meeting by Justin Berardino, operations manager for the Orange County Registrar of Voters, a map of ballot drop-off boxes proposed for the city triggered immediate concern by council members like Phil Bacerra.

The reason: There was only one new voting ballot drop-off box proposed for an entire area of the city south of First Street — an area officials said is one of the city’s densest and most public transportation-dependent — at Memorial Park, aside from the Registrar of Voters’ office itself. 

In the north end of the city, by comparison, elections officials are planning for seven ballot drop-off box locations.

OC Registrar of Voters

A screenshot of the OC Registrar of Voters’ proposed ballot drop-off boxes in Santa Ana shows only one new box proposed for the south end.

“I have to express my disappointment that a whole path of the densest city of Orange County — the second densest of California — there’s a huge swath, almost two-thirds of the city that’s only going to have two ballot drop-off locations,” Bacerra said after Berardino’s presentation. “I really hope that Memorial Park isn’t the only new one.”

Asked by Bacerra what went into the decision around the location selections, Berardino said “one of the things that moves the decision-making on this is the availability of properties that allow us to put the drop-off boxes there.”

“And I hope you’re able to find those,” Bacerra replied. “But as of right now, you have a dense population south of First Street; many of those dependent on (public) transit; many of them walk to the store, to the parks; and to just completely leave this as a desert when it comes to the availability of a ballot drop-off location, again I’m gonna say, is very unacceptable.”

Replied Berardino: “Again, we do push for that, and that’s why we are looking forward to cooperation with the city to procure these sites and provide that availability.”

In one zip code, 92701, which encompasses the area south of First Street, for example, residents use public transportation to travel to work more than most areas of the entire U.S., according to nationwide postal data.

Other factors that go into deciding locations, Berardino said, “includes population centers, historical voting habits,” under the California Voter’s Choice Act, a law passed in 2016 that expanded options for people to cast their ballots with vote centers and earlier in-person voting.

He added that elections officials “in a perfect world” could spread the locations evenly throughout the county, but they have to get landowners to agree to putting boxes on their properties – “that’s why we’re hoping to get this Memorial Park contract signed.”

Basing locations off prior voting habits, Councilman David Penaloza contended, is part of the problem.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Voters wait their turn at the Southwest Senior Center in Santa Ana in 2019.

“And it’s the decisions like this map here that have caused the suppression of votes and historical voting habits, because 50% of our residents don’t have access to a car,” Penaloza said, adding they likely “don’t have the time to go vote on a voting day or what not, so it’s gonna be very important for our city and the Registrar of Voters — and for our democracy — to really take a look at this map and make those ballot drop off boxes accessible.”

He suggested areas south of First Street like parks and schools that will be empty around November. 

Bacerra proposed areas like the Delhi Community Center. “Maybe some other places south of Warner Avenue that might be available, but just two locations south of First Street is just unacceptable,” he said.

With so few drop-off boxes planned for the south end of town, Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said “we’re leaving a whole lot of folks with challenges to being able to easily drop their ballots off.”

He added this problem came up in March as well: “You had a very large part of the city who couldn’t walk or access their drop-off boxes easily…we have a very high ridership in the city who use buses and walk or access services by foot.”

The map leaves out where the in-person vote centers will be. That, Berardino said, is pending proposed state legislation that will reformat how in-person voting will look, the number of sites required, and how many days it will be open, to abide by social distancing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sarmiento expressed relief that the issue was coming up now as opposed to later. 

“Hopefully you consider coming back to us with some of these changes,” he said.

Any of those, he added, should be communicated to residents in numerous languages.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.