Stanislaus County is in danger of missing out on an opportunity to improve its elections and save hundreds of thousands of dollars. If our County Supervisors don’t act soon, this opportunity will be lost.
One of the biggest problems affecting the integrity of elections in our county is overuse of provisional ballots. A voter who shows up at the wrong polling place on Election Day – often because of errors by the county elections office or the DMV – will likely be given a provisional ballot instead of directions to the correct polling place.
Stanislaus County generated 100 unique ballot types for the November 2018 election, and a voter who uses a provisional ballot at the wrong polling place very well may not receive the one out of those 100 that includes every race he or she is entitled to vote in. In the November 2018 election in our county, 33,000 people voted at the polls on Election Day, and 11,000 of them were given provisional ballots, usually without any explanation of the drawbacks of casting a provisional ballot. It is difficult to have confidence in the integrity of an election when fully one-third of Election Day voters may not have been allowed to vote their full ballot.
Our new registrar intends to open four vote centers for the three days preceding Election Day in 2020. That will be an improvement. Maybe we’ll see the number of provisional ballots decrease by two or three thousand. But that’s not enough, and there is another, better solution available.
That solution is the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA), which was piloted in five counties in 2018 – Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo. All California counties may opt in beginning in 2020.
Under the VCA, every voter receives a mail-in ballot and may vote by mail, at a secure drop box, or at a vote center. Our county would be required to have five vote centers for 10 days before the election, and a total of 25 vote centers for four days before and including Election Day.
Any voter could go to any vote center in the county and have their exact ballot printed out, virtually eliminating the use of provisional ballots. The five pilot counties had a combined total of fewer than 400 provisional ballots in November 2018.
The VCA carries potential for significant cost savings. Our county is one of several required to replace outdated voting equipment before March 2020. We can either buy enough expensive equipment to supply 348 precincts at 141 traditional polling places, or enough to supply 25 new vote centers.
Fresno County, which has opted in for 2020, is going to save $1.6 million by buying only the equipment needed for 50 vote centers rather than 268 precincts.
Madera County saved about $500,000 by acquiring less voting equipment.
If Sacramento County was not a VCA county it would spend $8.8 million more to replace its outdated equipment. There are additional costs for required voter outreach, but they are offset by far by the savings associated with acquiring and maintaining less equipment.
Our county leaders have expressed concern about whether there is enough time to opt in before the March 2020 election. The Secretary of State’s office has prepared a sample calendar for counties like ours. A few of the suggested deadlines have already passed but they are soft, internal deadlines having to do with planning and reaching out to community groups. I have already given presentations to about 10 community groups about the VCA, so we have a head start, and we could certainly catch up on the rest.
As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The time to solve this problem – and save a lot of money – is now, and we must call upon our county supervisors to opt in to VCA voting in time for the March 2020 election.
Lisa Battista is a Modesto attorney.