Of all the things that could’ve happened during the last week of unprecedented early voter turnout — in the middle of a pandemic — before one of the most consequential elections in years, a wildfire was low on the list for Orange County’s Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley. 

Then two wildfires erupted on Monday, uprooting families and threatening homes, and continued to burn in different parts of the county two days later. Fire officials on Wednesday morning said they didn’t expect to have the fires fully contained until Nov. 10.

“It’s the last thing I expected,” said Kelley in an interview that same morning.

At the time he spoke, two drop-off boxes for voters to turn in their ballots early ahead of the Nov. 3 election day were closed, due to their proximity to danger zones near the fires that threatened the north and south/central areas of the county. 

As many as four drop boxes near evacuated areas were closed the Tuesday before.

A pop-up voting site at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Ana was also canceled that same day due to its place in a voluntary evacuation area and expected emergency traffic. 

The shuttering of the ballot boxes come at a time where Kelley himself has expressed awe at the “unheard of” rate at which Orange County residents are returning their mail ballots early due to Coronavirus fears and sheer anticipation for the national and local elections.

Throughout this month, tens of thousands of ballots were being collected from drop boxes across the county on a daily basis, according to Registrar data. 

Yet there are obvious access issues when a resident’s local ballot box sits in a hazard zone, Kelley said. But, he added, “the fire situation keeps improving — if those two boxes come out of the danger zones in the next day or two, we’re in a good position.”

Registered voters can drop off their ballots at any of the county’s boxes. Click here for a list of their locations. 

The real hurdle will be figuring out where the local vote centers near those areas are going to go and still be safe, he pointed out. All those centers across the county should be coming online starting Oct. 30, according to the Registrar’s website.

At vote centers, people can walk in and physically cast a ballot (with Covid-19 social distancing measures in place).

Kelley acknowledged the challenge of switching voting locations, trying to find property owners who are willing to open their doors during Covid-19 and let the office set up alternative sites:

“That’s a challenge. I’m hoping in the next couple of hours we know where we’re going to end up.”

But the good news, Kelley said, is “it’s moving along pretty quickly when it usually takes a couple of weeks … there are community members who are stepping up.” 

“We at this point only have one vote center in the affected zone, and may have a second one in a voluntary evacuation center, so there may be access issues there,” he added. 

The alternative sites in the safer locations would, according to Kelley, look a lot like pop-up voting: “We’d have canopies, check-in stations, trailers with equipment …”

Over the weekend, before the fires erupted, the Registrar’s office set up pop-up mobile voting sites at Laguna Niguel Regional Park and the Main Place Mall in Santa Ana, where over 1,000 people cast ballots in total from both locations. 

Notably, the office tweeted Wednesday that around 600 ballots came out of the Laguna Niguel site — “a record for pre-election mobile voting.” 

More than 683,000 voters already cast their ballot as of Wednesday, according to Registrar data. Registered Democrats comprise more than 304,000 of those, while registered Republicans comprise nearly 201,000.

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

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