San Diego elections officials seek safe in-person voting options for November

Voters cast ballots early Tuesday at the county Registar of Voters office in Kearny Mesa on Super Tuesday.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Though all California voters will receive a mail ballot, San Diego County will provide in-person voting too


As California prepares to send every registered voter a mail ballot for this fall’s general election, election officials and legislators are devising ways to still provide in-person voting in November, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently two bills are working their way through the state legislature related to in-person polling locations in November.

One bill, Assembly Bill 860, would codify the Governor’s recent executive order to send every registered voter a mail ballot while also requiring that polling stations be provided.

The other bill, Senate Bill 423, would establish a minimum number of in-person voting locations and require them to be open four days — three days before and during Election Day. The bill proposes a minimum ratio of one polling location per 10,000 voters.

Michael Vu, San Diego County Registrar of Voters, said that although San Diego County voters have been trending toward mail ballots over the past 20 years, a large number will want or need an in-person voting experience, including people with disabilities, people who are voting for the first time, and people who may have lost or damaged their mail ballots.

“Bottom line is there still is going to be a couple of hundred thousands who need to visit a polling location or want to visit a polling location,” said Vu. “We need to be able to provide that level of service and ensure there’s no length of line a person is going to need to wait in.”

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu poses for a portrait outside the registrar's headquarters on February 20, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than 72 percent of all ballots cast in California’s March primary election were mail ballots, and nearly 75 percent of San Diego County’s registered voters are signed up to receive November’s ballots in the mail.

Yet hundreds of thousands are expected to go to the polls in San Diego County.

During the March primary more than 250,000 San Diegans cast ballots at the polls. During the presidential election in 20`16 about 490,000 cast ballots in person.

County elections officials are unlikely to make definitive decisions about what in-person voting will look like until after the state settles on its policies, but they’re well underway identifying various obstacles to in-person voting during a pandemic.

Voter qualms

A recent study by the New Election Project — a collaboration between researchers at five University of California campuses and the University of Southern California — surveyed 12,276 eligible voters and found about half those surveyed said they would not feel comfortable visiting a polling place if that location doesn’t implement social distancing measures, such as creating space between voting booths, poll workers, and voters in line.

On another question, the study found that 5.1 percent of African Americans, 4.8 percent of Asian Americans, 3.3. percent of non-Latino whites and 2.3 percent of Latinos surveyed would not vote if their only option was to vote by mail. That is not a huge percentage — 3.4 percent — but it means hundreds of thousands of voters potentially could be disenfranchised in California if mail-in voting were the only option.

The study also found that only 64.3 percent of those surveyed said they would not be comfortable being a poll worker if their precinct does not practice social distancing.

For all the scenarios, the likelihood of voting in-person or of being a poll worker fell when those surveyed were presented with a projection from medical experts that suggests the COVID-19 pandemic will peak in the fall.

Vu said he expects COVID-19 will factor into voter behavior, poll worker recruitment and polling locations.

Usually the county needs 7,000 to 8,000 poll workers for typical elections, he said, noting many poll workers are seniors, a demographic that public health experts say is most at risk from the coronavirus.

“You’ve got whole segments of the volunteer poll worker population who may not be able to assist us during the November election,” he said.

Under the proposals in the legislature, San Diego’s polling locations would likely be reduced, Vu said, dropping from the usual 1,000-plus locations to several hundred, he said.

With fewer polling locations, Vu’s office is projecting a need for about 3,500 poll workers.

But under the senate proposal, poll workers’ cost would go up, because instead of working one day, they might have to work four, or the county would need to hire more.

There are facilities challenges, too.

Finding facilities that are large enough, with enough open space to accommodate social distancing guidelines will be harder, Vu said. And many private facilities that are traditionally used as polling locations are likely off the table due to the pandemic, he added.

“Everyone is going to receive a mail ballot and there will be some level of in-person voting for the November election,” Vu said. “But I would highly encourage individuals to vote their mail ballot.”