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If You Live in Alameda, Marin or Sonoma Counties, Voting in the California Primary Election Will Be Different This Year

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A hand places a vote-by-mail ballot into a bright red ballot box.
A vote-by-mail ballot goes into the ballot box. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Are you a voter living in Alameda, Marin or Sonoma counties?

If so, you can expect some changes at the polls when voting begins next week in California’s June primary. Election Day itself, the last day to vote, is Tuesday, June 7.

The three jurisdictions are the latest in the state to switch to the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) model, first rolled out in 2018 and now adopted by nearly half of California counties. In the state’s words, this model gives “greater flexibility and convenience for voters” in how and where they can vote.

So if you’re a voter living in a county that has adopted the Voter’s Choice Act model, here’s what you need to know.

Which Bay Area counties have made this change?

Statewide, a majority of California voters now live in counties that have adopted the Voter’s Choice Act system.

With the changes this month, Alameda, Marin and Sonoma will join Napa, San Mateo and Santa Clara as Bay Area counties that have adopted the Voter’s Choice Act model.

Only Contra Costa, San Francisco and Solano counties will continue to use the traditional polling place model for this year’s midterm elections, which means voters in those counties will be assigned a specific location to cast their ballots on Election Day.

If I live in Alameda, Marin or Sonoma counties, what’s new with the way I vote?

For starters, say goodbye to the idea of your local polling place.

If you live in a county that’s adopted the Voter’s Choice model and want to cast a ballot in person, you’ll no longer be assigned to a specific location. Instead, a smaller number of voting centers will be available for longer hours, to any voter in the county — along with ballot drop boxes.

In a March webinar explaining the voting changes, Marin’s Registrar of Voters Lynda Roberts said the county previously opened 87 polling places on Election Day. Now, there will be 20 voting centers, with some opening their doors as early as May 28.

Roberts described the trade-off as “fewer locations but with better benefits.” Those benefits include multilingual resources and accessible voting units for disabled voters that you might not find at your neighbor’s garage-turned-polling place.

If you live in Alameda or Sonoma counties, some of these changes might actually be familiar to you already: In 2020, those counties did a trial run with flexible voting locations, and Alameda repeated the change in last year’s gubernatorial recall election. But this is the first time Marin is ditching assigned polling places.

A student holds an ‘I Voted’ sticker as she leaves a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on Nov. 6, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

If I live in a Voter’s Choice county, will I still get a ballot in the mail?

Yes. California law requires every county to send voters a ballot in the mail, by default.

And voters who fill out their ballots at home will still be able to return them through the Postal Service, at a county drop box, or at a voting location.

“Currently, we have a very high number of people who already vote by mail, so they won’t notice much difference,” said Roberts, in Marin.

To find your nearest ballot drop-off location or early voting site:

  1. Visit the State of California lookup tool.
  2. Enter your county — adding your city or ZIP code will give more localized results, but it’s optional.
  3. Check the “Early Voting” and/or “Drop Off Location” boxes.
  4. Hit “Search” to see all the early voting and drop-off locations in that specified area.


Why are counties making these changes to voting?

The Voter’s Choice Act was passed in 2016 with the goal of making voting more convenient, by sending every voter a ballot and offering regional voting locations with longer hours and more services. The system also cuts down on provisional ballots, which voters are forced to cast if they show up at the wrong polling place.

Now, mail ballots are sent to voters regardless of whether their county has adopted the VCA. But local officials say they are finding new reasons to make the change.

“For us, one of the big reasons is disaster resiliency,” said Deva Marie Proto, Sonoma County’s clerk-recorder-assessor-registrar of voters at a virtual event in March. “If you are a Sonoma County voter, you understand the number of disasters we’ve had over the last several years.”

The Voter’s Choice Act model means that if, for example, a wildfire were to make certain parts of the county inaccessible, voters would still be able to retrieve and cast ballots at another voting center.

“That means if we have an active fire or an area that’s evacuated, the voters in that area are not disenfranchised,” Proto added.

Are there any downsides to these voting changes?

Election researchers have been bullish on the ability of vote-by-mail to increase voter participation and close the turnout gaps among racial and ethnic groups.

But a recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California raised a red flag about a key piece of the Voter’s Choice Act: the consolidation of voting locations.

The report found that opening fewer places to vote actually widened the turnout gap between white voters and Black and Latino voters.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber said that her office will soon release more research into the effects of the Voter’s Choice Act, which The Los Angeles Times reported will include more details on racial and ethnic voting patterns.

In an interview on KQED’s Political Breakdown, Weber emphasized the importance of maintaining some in-person option for VCA counties.

“We’re assessing the [voting] centers … as to how many people actually show up at the centers,” Weber said. “But also we know the fact that people do want a center — there’s something that people like about going to vote.”


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