San Diego County supervisors to study new voting system

A registered voter slips their ballot into the ballot box at a polling station at the Christian United Methodist Church in City Heights.
(Union-Tribune file photo)

The county is studying a new way to vote in San Diego County elections.

On Tuesday, July 9, county supervisors voted 4-1 to conduct a feasibility study on a new voting system gaining popularity across the state, a system where every registered voter is sent a mail-in ballot and where neighborhood polling places are replaced by all-purpose, multi-day “vote centers.”

The changes became an option in state law in 2016. Since then five counties implemented the new vote center system during the 2018 election cycle, and at least 10 more are poised to adopt it for 2020, including Los Angeles County and Orange County. The counties that made the switch in 2018 closed hundreds of neighborhood polling places and replaced some, but not all, of them with vote centers.

Included in the board’s action Tuesday was direction to county staff to conduct a study of the potential cost of running a pilot program involving vote centers, in addition to traditional neighborhood polling places, during the 2020 election cycle.

“Our democracy is strongest when the most voters participate in our elections .... We should do everything possible to make it easier for people to access the ballot,” said Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who proposed the board action.

The board of supervisors also asked county staff to see how much it would cost to commission an independent audit of the current voter list, requested by Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.

“It is my hope that an independent audit could put to rest any concern our community has around fraudulent voting,”she said.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, the lone supervisor to vote against the board’s actions, said he was concerned about how switching to a vote center model and closing neighborhood polling places would affect residents in unincorporated and rural areas of the county.

“No matter where these vote centers are, whoever is closest to them has more convenience and opportunities than those who live further away,” he said, saying he is open to look at all options to increase turnout. “I’d like to see a broader study that might include vote centers but not be exclusive to it.”

County staff are expected to return to the board with the studies within 120 days, but even if supervisors are encouraged by the results, wholesale change of the region’s voting system would not happen until the 2022 election cycle at the earliest, according to officials.

Researchers have found early indications of a positive impact on voter turnout in the five California counties that changed voting systems for the 2018 races, Sacramento, Madera, Napa, Nevada and San Mateo.

Under the 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, all California counties have the option to adopt the new voting model, in which counties mail every registered voter a vote-by-mail ballot that the resident can then mail in, or drop off at a secure ballot box or at any vote center, which are open multiple days before an election.

Residents can also go to any of these vote centers, regardless of where they live in the county, and receive replacement ballots, register to vote, access language assistance or receive translated election materials.

The vote center system will likely reduce the number of provisional ballots issued because the vote centers have access to the entire voter registration database, said Michael Vu, San Diego County Registrar of Voters.

Counties representing more than half the state’s electorate have adopted the vote centers system for 2020.

For San Diego County the potential impact of changing to a vote centers voting model is not yet clear.

About 70 percent of San Diego County’s registered voters currently cast their ballot by mail. The region also is larger geographically and possesses a significantly larger electorate than the five counties that have already made the switch.

Still, the early returns for counties that made the switch appear to be positive, said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego.

Kousser is part of a team of researchers across the UC school system and the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy who are studying how the Voter’s Choice Act and the new voting model. He addressed the board Tuesday.

In their first study Kousser’s group found that the average increase in turnout in 2018 for the five counties with the new model was 18 percent during the general election, up from a 15 percent average increase for all other counties. For the primary election, the five counties showed a 10.3 percent increase, compared to a 6.8 percent increase in all other counties.

The group also found that counties with the new voting system saw higher than average increases in turnout among voter blocs that typically show lower than average participation rates, including young voters, Latinos and Asian American voters.

Most of the supervisors supported studying a new voting system, but several were reluctant to develop a plan for implementation, so that option was removed from the measure.

— Charles T. Clark is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune