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Newsom Signs Plan for Polling Place Changes in Face of Pandemic

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A voting booth at the Santa Clara Registrar of Voters on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed legislation establishing requirements for in-person voting in the November general election, hours after the bill was approved by the state Senate.

Facing the uncertainty of an election conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials are encouraging vote-by-mail and sending every California voter a ballot. The legislation signed by Newsom will allow counties to offer fewer in-person voting sites, as many counties struggle to find locations to accommodate physical distancing.

Under Senate Bill 423, counties will still have to offer a voting location for every 10,000 voters and, if they choose to consolidate polling sites, allow in-person voting for three days before the election.

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Newsom initially advocated for the changes in an executive order signed in June. The order faced legal challenges that argued Newsom exceeded his executive authority — challenges now rendered moot by the legislation.

On the Senate floor Thursday, state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, said he wrote the bill "to guarantee that there will be accessible, secure and safe in-person opportunities for voters who cannot or choose not to use their vote-by-mail ballot."

Despite the state's emphasis on mail voting, many voters will still need to vote in-person, Umberg said, including voters who need language or disability access assistance, or those who need to update their registration or address.

The legislation won super-majority support in the state Senate, after passing the Assembly on Monday.

Opponents of the bill worried that allowing counties to close polling places would inevitably limit access for voters. In states including Georgia and Wisconsin, the closure of voting locations resulted in long lines at the polls.

Fifteen California counties already use vote centers, larger voting locations that serve all voters in the county and provide a wider range of services. SB 423 will allow those counties to reduce in-person voting from 10 days to three.

"I prefer 10 days over three," said state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa.

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The legislation will make life easier for many counties that are struggling to find enough polling places for the fall. Many longtime voting locations, like senior homes and garages, are not safe or large enough to support physical distancing. And the threat of COVID-19 could make many older poll workers wary of participating.

"I can tell you that counties need our help," said Secretary of State Alex Padilla at a Thursday press conference. "More than half the counties have communicated to my office that they need our assistance specifically in finding new voting locations."

Sacramento County opened 84 vote centers for the March primary, but has only secured 39 sites for the November election. In Santa Barbara, officials are reducing the number of in-person voting sites from 86 to 25.

Padilla said he's hoping schools, which accounted for a third of voting sites statewide in March, will open their doors for voters.

"We're hoping that with a lack of presence of students and employees on campus, that maybe schools can continue to be a lion's share of the voting locations up and down the state," Padilla said.

It's unclear whether schools and houses of worship, another traditional voting site, will be willing to welcome voters while they are otherwise required to close under state COVID-19 restrictions.

Padilla asked California residents and businesses to contact his office if they have large spaces to offer.

"The more we can successfully get people to vote early by mail or in person, we hope to reduce the lines and the crowd size on Election Day," Padilla said. "That being said, we can hope for the best but we've got to plan for a surge of people on Election Day."

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