Community Columns

Joan Clendenin: Caution needed on implementation of Voters Choice Act

By Joan Clendenin

etracy@modbee.com

Lisa Battista argued that full implementation on the Voter Choice Act (SB 450) would eliminate the need for so many provisional ballots being cast in the 2018 election, reduce the cost of elections and increase voter participation.

While Ms. Battista is essentially correct, there is much more to the VCA that she neglected to mention.

Provisional voting is a benefit that ensures that all properly registered voters can cast a ballot that will ultimately be counted. Provisional ballots are cast by a voter who believes they are properly registered to vote, even though their name is not listed on the official polling place roster.

The most common reason why a provisional ballot is used is when a Vote by Mail (VBM) voter decides to vote in person at their poll and do not have their original ballot to surrender, they lost the ballot, made a mistake, or claim they did not receive the ballot by mail. Another common example is if a voter is not on the official polling place roster because they recently moved within the county without re-registering.

If the elections official were to allow the ballot to be immediately processed, the danger would be that a VBM ballot could have already been received by the office in the mail, or a ballot could have been cast in their former polling location, thus permitting a voter to vote multiple times. To protect the integrity of the elections, county elections officials verify that all provisional voters are registered in the county and did not already vote by other means.

There were new laws that took effect in 2018 that drove up the number of provisional ballots cast. They were: Election Day voter registration; implementation of California Motor Voter by the Department of Motor Vehicles; and legal vote harvesting.

Beginning in 2020, all California counties may opt into the Voters Choice Act (VCA) upon the approval of the county Board of Supervisors.

Under the Act, every registered voter in the county will be mailed a VBM ballot which may be returned by mail, dropped off at a secure drop box or at a fully staffed voting center. With current voter registration totals, our county would need five fully staffed vote centers open for 10 days before the election and a total of 25 vote centers four days prior to and including Election Day.

Currently, approximately twelve of California’s 58 counties have committed to implementing the Act for 2020. Five “pilot” counties who tested these changes during the 2018 election encouraged a more deliberate approach to those counties considering the change.

Those promising a cost decrease in choosing the VCA will be disappointed. Fresno County’s Registrar of Voters estimates an additional cost of $130,000 per election. At last week’s San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors meeting, it was outlined that the move to VCA would be a lot costlier for that county.

While the VCA could be a solution to decrease the number of provisional ballots, it presents a new set of challenges and there are several hurdles the Registrar of Voters must address to implement a drastic change in the current voting model.

Additionally, several costly and time-consuming changes will be necessary before the Act must be implemented. Those changes include:

  • Purchase of new voting equipment
  • Creation of a detailed Election Administration Plan
  • Formation of two committees focused on voter access and language assistance
  • Community outreach and education on the detailed Election Administration Plan
  • Advertising in multiple media sources and languages
  • Location of five vote centers to be open 10 days prior to the election and 20 more open four days prior to, and including the day of election
  • Purchase and installation of network security equipment for each vote center
  • Hiring and training of staff to conduct elections at the vote centers
  • Approval of budget appropriations to fund these changes

To serve the residents of this county and reduce the overall numbers of provisional voters, the Registrar of Voters plans to implement some changes in the upcoming election.

Four satellite offices will be staffed in various parts of the county to immediately confirm voter eligibility status; roving staff members will be supplied with sufficient materials to ensure that individual polling places are adequately supplied throughout the day; and establish a provisional hot line to confirm whether a Vote-by-Mail voter has returned their ballot.

In the long run, the VCA should be implemented in a measured, thoughtful manner ensuring continued confidence in the Registrar of Voters and the integrity of the election process.

Joan Trombetta Clendenin, a Modesto resident, was the Legislative Analyst for Election Law for the California Federation of Republican Women [CFRW] from 2004 until 2014.

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