How is Coronavirus Changing Voting? A Q&A With Orange County’s Elections Chief

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

An ballot drop box in front of the Orange County Registrar of Voters headquarters in Santa Ana on Tuesday, Aug. 18. 2020.

As Orange County voters gear up for the November election, many residents have mounting questions about how the voting process will play out during the coronavirus pandemic, including questions around mail-in voting and delays in postal service.


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This week, Voice of OC put those kinds of questions directly to the man in charge of making sure the election goes smoothly, and that every vote counts.

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley believes mail-in voting remains more secure than in-person voting, noting that he’s preparing for the vast majority of OC voters – upwards of 95 percent – to cast ballots by mail in the upcoming election.

In anticipation of possible delays in postal delivery, the California Legislature extended the deadline for ballots to be received by county to 17 days after Election Day, as long as ballots are postmarked Election Day.

Another elections expert agreed that California is well positioned for any delays in postal service.

“Let’s be clear on the fact that Orange County voters – every [voter] in Orange County got mailed a ballot in the primary, and there were not problems. And there’s no reason for voters in Orange County – or anywhere in California – to believe they’re going to be disenfranchised because of a national conversation or fight or political battle over the post office,” said Paul Mitchell, who helps lead one of the largest election data firms in California.

“We should all be watching and concerned about any defunding of the post office,” Mitchell said. “[But] it’s not going to affect California voters.”

The voting process in Orange County will be largely similar to the March primary, Kelley said, including every registered voter being mailed a ballot and having multiple options for casting it: by mail, dropping it off at a vote center or ballot drop box, or voting in person at a vote center.

The main differences, he said, will be new safety measures at in-person voting centers like one-time use pens, physical distancing, open front doors and hand sanitizer.

What should voters expect with voting in the pandemic, and what changes, if any, are coming?

I think the good news is that most voters will kind of see the same thing they saw in the March primary, in terms of: everybody’s going to get a mail ballot, and there will be lots of options for returning that ballot. We will have essentially the same number of vote centers that we operated in the March primary.

The main differences will be that the in-person voting components will have COVID-19 precautions. So there will be a number of items in place in those in-person sites that may slow the process down a little bit. And then, the other thing is that we will be operating our vote centers for 5 days – 4 days plus Election Day – instead of 11 days like we did in the March primary.

So the only real difference they will see is that reduction in the number of days. But the reality is, in March 99 percent of our voters that were in person used the voter centers the last four days. So we don’t anticipate much of an affect from that at all. But everything else would be kind of seamless for voters.

What safety measures will be in place at vote centers? Could you walk through some of that?

Every vote center will have a freestanding hand sanitation station when you walk in. There’s going to be signage there to guide voters and let them know what the COVID-19 precautions are. There will be floor markings, along with stanchions, that will show people where to stand 6 feet apart.

Once they get to the check-in station, each one of our vote center employees will have a face shield as well as a face covering. And the styluses that are used to sign will be sanitized after each use. Every one of those check-in stations will have hand sanitizer, tissues, disinfecting wipes, gloves. And for voters we will be using a one-time use pen. So when they mark their ballot, they throw the pen away. And then the secrecy folder that they would put their ballot in before they scan it is also a throw-away now, instead of a re-use.

Once they leave the check-in station, there’s floor markings and arrows to guide them in which direction to go in. Every other voting booth will be closed down for physical distancing, and they’ll have signage on them so that a voter couldn’t for instance stand between a booth. Those will be used to separate them.

And then when they get done voting their ballot, they’ll take their ballot to a scan station where there will be voting attendants showing them where to scan it. Once they scan their ballot, we’ve purchased dispensers for “I Voted” stickers. So now voters will grab their own “I Voted” sticker, and off they go. And the last thing they’ll see when they exit the vote center will be another freestanding hand sanitizing station that they can use once they leave the site.

Commonly touched surfaces have been a concern during the pandemic, like door handles. Are there any surfaces that would be touched by lots of people, that voters would come in contact with? Or is that all pretty much eliminated?

We’re going through a disinfecting procedure before we open the site. And that happens also every morning. But the vote center doors, when we can – which will be the majority of them – will be propped open, so that voters will not have to touch any hardware.

So the only thing the voter really will have to touch are two things. One is signing with the stylus, and as I mentioned that will be cleaned after every use. And then the pen itself that they mark their ballot with. And that is a disposable pen.

In terms of mail-in voting, are you expecting an increase in people casting ballots by mail?

Even with the national dialogue, the reality is 8 of 10 of our voters in March used a mail ballot. I anticipate probably we’re going to see upwards of 95 percent, roughly, that are going to use a mail ballot.

Three days after the March primary when COVID really exploded, I immediately started looking for grant funding to purchase a second automated sorter, and then doubling our scanning capacity. Because I thought, if anything’s going to happen to us in the fall, it’s going to be expanded vote-by-mail.

So we’re now the only county in California that, today we could run our entire election by mail if we had to. So we’re also going to see a speeding up of the post-election process, because I now have the ability to process ballots at twice the speed. Just because we’ve doubled that capacity. 

Mail-in voting is a big topic nationally right now. What are your thoughts on the concerns about safety of mail-in voting? Should voters have concerns about that?

I think the reality is that, we’ve done a lot of the right things here in Orange County to make sure the checks and balances are in place. We’ve had 80 elections-plus since I’ve been here, and vote-by-mail has continued to grow. We’ve been through 45 recounts with an absolutely accurate counting of the system. We work closely with our federal law enforcement partners – DHS, FBI – on our voter records as well as our network-based systems. To be honest with you, I really feel – and this is my personal opinion but I think the data backs it up – that vote-by-mail voting, in particular in California, is more secure than in-person voting. Because in-person voting, there’s no ID laws, there’s no check on your voter record, there’s no signature comparison. All of that is done with vote-by-mail voting. And so a lot of this national dialogue, I just really don’t think it applies to what we’re doing here in California.

The postal service is getting a lot of attention right now. Let’s say there’s a wave of people putting their ballots in the mail on Election Day or the day before Election Day, and it’s a four or five-day delivery day with the postal service. What would happen in that scenario? Do you see that as a possibility, and would those ballots still count? What do you say to the concerns about delays?

They’re legitimate concerns. We have a good relationship with our postal folks here in Orange County, in fact I meet regularly with the postmaster. I don’t see the same kinds of concerns here in Orange County that some of my colleagues on the East Coast are facing. But the [California] Legislature thought ahead on this, and for COVID one of the bills that they passed extended the time for us to receive [ballots]. It’s now 17 days [after Election Day] instead of three days.

Would that also push out the final vote tallies – to about 2.5 weeks after Election Day?

Correct.

The 2020 general election is scheduled for Nov. 3. More information is available at the Orange County Registrar of Voters website at ocvote.com.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].