Our View: Convenience of voting centers might boost Stanislaus turnout

Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters Donna Linder wheels a cart of sorted ballots that are to be flattened before they are counted at the Stanislaus County Clerks Recorder’s office in Modesto, Calif.
Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters Donna Linder wheels a cart of sorted ballots that are to be flattened before they are counted at the Stanislaus County Clerks Recorder’s office in Modesto, Calif. Modesto Bee

If introducing fancy voting centers throughout Stanislaus County helps more people vote, and reduces some of the trouble we saw in the last election, let’s give it a try. Even if it means saying goodbye to traditional polling places, which will be hard for some.

Five counties — Sacramento, San Mateo, Madera, Napa and Nevada — tried these new voting centers in the fall. They had enough good things to say that five more counties since, including Santa Clara just a few days ago, and earlier Fresno, Mariposa, Orange and Los Angeles, have decided to make the switch as well.

If we did it here, all registered voters would be mailed a ballot, and most would simply fill it out and mail it back. Others would take theirs to drop-off stations.

But some always wait until the last minute. Maybe they can’t find their ballot, or they left it home in Patterson and now they’re at work in Modesto, or they can’t remember where they’re supposed to vote. Under current rules, these people can go to any polling place and obtain a provisional ballot, which is a pain for election workers to count because they have to verify that the person is registered and has not returned a mail-in ballot or voted somewhere else.

Surely there can’t be many in that category, you say? Well, in November more than 9,600 people — 6 percent of the 159,226 who voted — found themselves in this situation. Seems incredible, but it’s true, and state law says they’re allowed to vote and their vote must be counted.

We’re not talking about people who decided to sign up to vote on the last day. They accounted for another 700 in this county in November, and yes, their votes must be tallied as well.

Uncommonly high interest in some races on that ballot, including Congressman Jeff Denham trying (unsuccessfully, it turned out) to fend off a challenge from Josh Harder for a U.S. House seat, brought more people to the polls than many expected. The trouble started when some polling places ran out of envelopes for those last-minute provisional ballots. Some English speakers, pinched for time, agreed to use Spanish-language ballots. Others drove to the clerk-recorder’s office, the election headquarters in downtown Modesto, where a line formed that at one point took 90 minutes to get through.

No wonder a lot of people were frustrated and angry.

New Clerk-Recorder Donna Linder, who took over in December, has a plan to keep that from happening again: she’ll order more ballots and envelopes for all polling stations, and will have rovers with even more supplies out and about on election night.

But the crisis would never have developed under the voting centers model, made possible by the California Voter’s Choice Act of 2016. Such a voting center could help anyone, anywhere in the county. A computer check would quickly assure that the voter hadn’t already cast a ballot, and would print a new ballot specific to his or her city or district, for on-the-spot voting. And some voting centers would be open 10 days before the election, with even more operating four days before.

“I do see this as the future of elections,” says Linder. But not right away. The five pilot counties suggest spending 18 months educating voters, including a series of neighborhood meetings and town halls like those that San Joaquin County now are doing.

Also, it’s expensive. Paying trained staff to help people with computers costs more than volunteer-run polling places.

For the 2020 March Primary, Linder wants something close to voting centers in Salida, Turlock, Oakdale and Patterson, with optional computer help but without sending everyone a mail ballot. If Stanislaus supervisors want the whole thing, they would pay for a voting center for every 10,000 registered voters, requiring about 25 sprinkled throughout the county rather than the 150 polling places we have now, and the new system could be in place by 2022.

Many people would miss neighborly smiles greeting them as they arrive to do their civic duty at the church on the corner, or the neighborhood school or fire station. It would be a shame if some, disgusted at being forced to vote in a way different from time-honored tradition, quit participating altogether.

We suspect that response would be minimal. Diehard voters who understand how crucial it is to engage will find a way to adapt. Allured by convenience, most already have; in the November election, 77 percent of people who voted used mail ballots.

Even with the November turnout spike, a little less than two-thirds of Stanislaus voters bothered to cast a ballot. That means one-third didn’t. If voting centers can improve those numbers, bring them on.