Listen to the full radio report here, first aired October 7, 2020:
By Ariel Boone (@arielboone), KPFA elections reporter
SACRAMENTO, CA – “Do not wait. If you can vote early, please vote early this year.”
That was the primary message of Sam Mahood, press secretary for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. Mahood declined to spell out any scenarios where the state would be overwhelmed by an influx of mail-in ballots this year — 72 percent of ballots in California’s presidential primary in March were returned by mail, after all — but this will be an election unlike any other in state history, with record-breaking numbers of registered voters, new election systems rolled out, and a pandemic to manage.
“Just given everything with COVID, we know there’s going to be a bigger strain on resources for everyone and on polling locations,” Mahood says. “We really say November 3, as much as it’s Election Day, it’s really the last date to vote, is how we want people to look at it this year.”
California now has 21 million active registered voters — a record. The secretary of state says that number includes 83% of eligible adults. Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis says the county currently has 940,000 registered voters, and could hit 1 million by election day.
Dupuis told KPFA that along with voter registration, poll worker recruitment has spiked. The county needs 1,700 volunteer election workers to staff voting centers from October 31 through November 3, and 4,800 people signed up. It has a reserve of 3,000 extra volunteers.
“We’ve never been in this situation,” Dupuis says. “It’s just amazing, the outpour of support from our community.”
Another thing that’s new this year: California will mail every voter a ballot. In fact, California has already mailed every registered voter a ballot — every county was required to send them by October 5. If you have not received your ballot by October 10, the secretary of state recommends signing up to track your ballot at WheresMyBallot.sos.ca.gov, and contacting your county registrar.
You may have heard about backups at the post office earlier this year — so we asked the people who actually handle the mail what to expect.
“I have to tell you that we will get those ballots out. It’s in our DNA. That’s our job.” – Shirley Taylor, American Postal Workers Union
Shirley Taylor is a national business agent for the American Postal Workers Union. She says multiple postal workers’ unions have formed a nationwide task force to clear every ballot from every mail processing center, every night.
“The National Postal Mail Handlers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, and the National Association of Postal Supervisors, all of us are participating,” Taylor says. “And the purpose is to ensure all election mail, mainly ballots, are processed and cleared daily and accounted for. And every night they’re going to have a clearance report certification that all ballots are clear. And if not, they have to tell the reason why. And then these representatives of the committee will review these reports and walk through these plants, looking for problems and giving suggestions.”
There’s more scrutiny on the postal service this year. In August, a federal judge in Washington blocked moves by President Trump’s postmaster general to remove mail sorting machines and bar postal workers from using overtime to finish deliveries. But Shirley Taylor says the workers are up to the task of delivering ballots.
“I have to tell you that we will get those ballots out. It’s in our DNA. That’s our job.”
She would know — Shirley started working for the postal service in 1962 in Alameda County, for $2.67 an hour. She worked before the arrival of the high-speed mail sorting machines that Louis DeJoy would eventually have removed.
Also, California arranged with the Post Office to get ballots delivered even they don’t have postage. It’s “no stamp, no problem,” in the first statewide general election where no postage is required on any ballot, says the secretary of state’s office.
Sam Mahood and Tim Dupuis both stressed that even though everyone’s getting mailed a ballot, this is not just a vote by mail election.
There will be in-person voting machines. And, Mahood says, “These are really critical for voters who might have made a mistake with their ballot and need to get a replacement, voters who need to take advantage of same day voter registration if they miss the October 19 voter registration deadline, voters with disabilities who might need to use accessible voting machines that are available at their polling location, or voters who might need assistance in another language and need help from a poll worker.”
This might be the sticky part. An executive order from Gavin Newsom in June instructed registrars to mail every voter a ballot, but also set terms of providing safe, in-person, accessible voting options. Many typical polling locations like schools and senior centers are closed to the public for safety. So some counties are switching to a “vote center” model.
In Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Napa and Fresno counties, there will be fewer polling locations, and instead, voting centers will be open at least four days before the election, for early voting. In theory, they’re a big step forward: voters are no longer restricted to just one voting location, and any center in your county will do.
“In this election, if you happen to be in Livermore, and you’re a resident of Alameda, you could go into an accessible vote location in that city, and we’ll be able to produce your city of Alameda ballot so that you can vote there,” Alameda County registrar Tim Dupuis says. “It does remove those geographic restrictions. So you’re able to vote where it’s convenient.”
But the switch to a voting center system can be tricky: when Los Angeles did it for the primary this spring, there were long voting lines because poll workers had difficulty connecting to an online database. Newsom’s executive order says counties that use the vote center model must have 1 for every 10,000 voters. And big crowds can be a problem during a pandemic.
“The first thing we wanted to think about is: Do we need the voter to get out of their car at all?” – Alameda County registrar Tim Dupuis
Tim Dupuis says measures are in place to keep COVID from spreading at Alameda County’s vote centers.
“If they have the ballot already that we mailed to them, and they have the envelope, we’re going to have a drive through drop stop, where they can just hand us their ballot through the window, and we’ll drop it into the ballot box, and they’ll get their ‘I voted’ sticker.
“If they want to vote and they’re willing to vote in their car, we call it curbside voting. So they’ll be able to come up and they can ask for their ballot. We’ll ask them to park and we’ll run their ballot out to them when it’s ready.
“Worst case, if they do have to come into the location, we have everything spread out. These locations are at least 2,500 square feet, and everybody’s going to be wearing the protective equipment, the PPE that’s required. We’ll have all of the sanitizing that’s necessary for those facilities, and we’ll limit the number of people who can actually come in,” Dupuis says.
Alameda County is offering vote centers open from October 31 through November 3 in addition to drop boxes placed throughout the county.
But Dupuis calls the vote centers a “last resort” for voting: “It’s available to you, but we really are encouraging safe voting with all the options that we have.”
Here’s what else election officials want you to know: In California, you can register for a ballot to be mailed to you until October 19. After that, you can register and vote in-person up to and including Election Day. You can do this now, any day, at your county registrar’s office. You will also be able to do it at voting centers, most of which will open 4 days before the election, on October 31.
If you’re voting by mail, you can also track your ballot on its way to you, from you, and through the counting process, using a new online tool offered in every county called “Where’s My Ballot?”
Mahood says 5 percent of California voters have already signed up for the tool, and assures KPFA that the state is “absolutely” ready for an influx of new sign-ups.
“You’ll know when it’s on the way to you when it’s been received by your County elections office, when it’s been, and if it hasn’t been counted,” he says. “You’ll be alerted to an issue, which you’ll still have time to correct. Usually it’s a missing signature, or your signature doesn’t match what’s on file, but by signing up, you’ll be notified much more quickly.”
It’s important to know where your ballot goes. In the past decade, an average of 1.7 percent of ballots cast by mail in California were rejected.
“The top three reasons for ballot rejection for everybody are late, a missing signature or a bad signature,” says Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. Her research has found mail-in ballot rejection disproportionately impacts voters aged 18-24.
In a study of Sacramento, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, young voters were three times more likely to have ballots rejected in 2018, according to Romero’s research. She says to make sure you sign the envelope if you’re voting by mail in California, and get the ballot in the mail early, no later than November 3. But most important, she says, is to make the decision to vote.
“It’s the fact that we make potential voters in this country be responsible for their own voter registration, and then we put a lot of hoops there to make it more difficult to register for young people.
“We will see millions of eligible voters in this election that will not vote in our state. And that is a travesty for our democracy.”