‘All Hands on Deck’ as California Election Officials Struggle to Find Pandemic-Safe Polling Places

A sign leads voters to the polling station at the Santa Clara Registrar of Voters on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California election officials have a clear message for voters ahead of the first statewide election during the coronavirus pandemic: Fill out your ballot at home.

Voting by mail will be easier this fall, when every registered voter in the state will be sent a ballot in an effort to reduce crowding at polling places.

But for many Californians, distanced voting is not possible; some might have language barriers or disability issues requiring in-person assistance. Others, like voters who have recently relocated or are experiencing homelessness, may not have received a ballot in the mail.

For them, and the many others voters who simply prefer to cast their ballots in person, state and local officials are scrambling to create a safe voting experience that reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Some counties are using the crisis to pilot novel ideas, while others are struggling to replace longtime polling places where a gathering of people could pose a significant health risk.

“Say goodbye to voting in residential garages and retirement homes," California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. "To different extents, different counties are struggling to find replacement and smarter voting locations.”

Padilla said it's "all hands on deck" in the effort to find voting locations that can accommodate physical distancing.

“We're not going to go into a voting location and see 30 voting booths all side by side," Padilla said, who last week issued safety guidelines for in-person voting. "So we're needing both new locations and larger locations.”

Acknowledging that finding and staffing new locations may prove impossible in many parts of the state, Padilla is supporting legislation that would let counties reduce the number of polling places they have to open in the fall.

The proposal, Senate Bill 423, mirrors an executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June.

Supporters believe the changes will not come at the expense of access: If counties opt to consolidate voting locations, they'll have to open the polls for longer hours — beginning the Saturday before Election Day.

“As we have already seen in some other states, a massive reduction in voting locations would result in longer lines and larger and potentially unsafe gatherings on Election Day,” Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting, said in a hearing on the bill this week. “SB 423 will ensure that that will not be the case in California.”

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice on racial disparities in voting access warned that election administrators should “avoid closing polling places without firm analytical evidence that doing so will not overburden remaining polling places.”

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Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, worried aloud at the hearing that “for people not to have access to the polling place that they’re used to going to, I can see that as being problematic for voter access.”

But election officials say many counties will have no choice — with many long-time polling places either unavailable or unusable during the pandemic.

“We know in Alameda County specifically, a lot of the locations that were used in the primary are reluctant to make themselves available this November or simply not making the commitment," Padilla said.

Alameda, like counties across the state, relies heavily on churches and synagogues to serve as polling places. In Oakland, more than half of the polling places in the March primary were houses of worship or religious facilities, like parish halls. Asking those facilities to open their doors for voting on weekend days of worship could prove difficult.

Tim Dupuis, the registrar of voters in Alameda County, declined to comment for this story.

“We’ve traditionally used churches, but when you’re asking them to be open on Sunday, some of the churches have said ‘wait a second!’" said Joe Holland, the registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County. “It’s been a real challenge.”

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And many schools, another traditional site for voting, are unable to commit to serving as polling places because they’re still not sure if they will reopen by Election Day.

Holland said Santa Barbara will have 25 voting locations in November, down from 86 during the March primary. The remaining locations will act as ‘vote centers,’ providing extra services like on-site registration and ballot assistance. Santa Cruz and Stanislaus are among the counties taking a similar approach.

Finding new sites hasn't been easy or cheap, Holland said, who’s renting out three hotel ballrooms at a cost of $6,000 each.

“We’re going to see very high turnout,” he said. “Now we have to put this on in the middle of a pandemic and do it in a way that we’ve never done before. That’s a lot of risk.”

The transition could prove easier in the 15 counties that already switched to a ‘vote center’ model in previous elections — including Napa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — where many of the polling sites are large enough to provide for physical distancing.

"It hasn’t been as much of a challenge," said April Bracamonte, Santa Clara County’s Election Process Supervisor, noting that the county is close to its goal of securing 100 vote centers. “The facilities are concerned and want to have a lengthy conversation, but we haven’t had any resistance.”

Other counties are turning to unique solutions in their attempt to find safe voting sites.

Last week, Sacramento County announced that Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, will be converted into a gigantic vote center for 10 days before the election. And San Francisco is moving its large City Hall voting site outdoors, in front of the adjacent Bill Graham Auditorium, to reduce crowding.

Meanwhile, Chukchansi Park, the minor league baseball stadium in Fresno, will serve as a phone bank for election workers to answer voters' questions, said Brandi Orth, the Fresno County registrar of voters.

Orth, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, called the process of finding sites a “tremendous undertaking.”

But she said one silver lining was the tens of millions of dollars in new election funding available to counties, including $65.5 million from the federal budget and CARES Act, that allows counties to use the funds to lease polling facilities.

“The one nice thing is there's money available, and that hasn't always been the case,” Orth said. “So that's a welcome relief.”

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