Before the pandemic, California’s polling places were already disappearing
OCTOBER 22, 2020
Standing in line at their local polling place, a longtime ritual for many Californians, will be a thing of the past this Election Day for half of the state’s voters.
That’s because in 2016 the California Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act, which allows counties to transition from polling places to a vote center and universal vote-by-mail model.
This year 15 counties, including Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Clarita, adopted the Voter’s Choice Act. More than half of the state’s population is concentrated in those counties.
Under the new model there are fewer places to vote. Orange County went from 1,100 polling places to 116 vote centers. The vote centers are open for more days than polling places, expanding early voting options.
The traditional polling place model, which will still be followed by the remaining counties, “was a paper-based system, and you had to vote in your home precinct,” said Neal Kelley, Chief Elections Officer for Orange County. “If you wanted to vote in person, you had to surrender your mail-in ballot. If you didn’t do all of that, you would have to vote with a provisional ballot, which means your vote was put into suspense until after the election, when it was adjudicated and verified.”
Instead of being assigned to a specific polling place, voters in the 15 counties can vote by mail or in person at any vote center in their county, not just the polling place assigned to them. An electronic check-in system which uses data in real time ensures that voters get the correct ballot, regardless of the voting center where they decide to cast their ballot.
One criticism of the vote center model is that the decrease in polling places can make it harder for people to vote in person. Expanding early voting and vote-by-mail are ways to combat these barriers, and early voting is up 500% in Orange County so far this election, compared to the same point in 2016.
Katie Licari is a reporter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.