Six years ago, California tried to make elections earlier and more accessible to its constituents.
Under the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) signed into law by the then Governor. Jerry Brown, all registered voters in participating counties would receive a mail-in ballot. Polling districts would give way to central polling stations, where ballots could be cast up to 10 days before Election Day. Drop off points would be available 29 days in advance.
The VCA “will allow California voters a significant expansion of early voting,” predicted then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who was elected to the US Senate last month. “Why limit voting to one location on a single Tuesday?”
When Brown signed the law into law, only 5 counties adopted the new voting model. But in 2022, less than half of California’s counties — 27 out of 58 — have signed up, despite data from the Secretary of State showing that the VCA has significantly improved voter turnout.
Local election officials cite several reasons for the VCA’s mediocre uptake. Voting habits can be ingrained, and many voters remain committed to voting. Some rural counties have resisted the closure of traditional polling stations because residents would have to travel long distances to vote in person.
Additionally, research in 2020 found that consolidation of in-person polling locations in many California counties led to a decline in black and Latino turnout as a proportion of voters. Another study shows that the state’s black voters are more likely than the general electorate to vote in person.
In a statement, a State Department spokesman said it expects “another five to six counties” could convert to VCA in 2023 and a handful in 2024.
“Because some counties require county board approval prior to the announcement, we do not yet have a confirmed list of counties that will be moving until this step,” the spokesman said.
Support for VCA in some rural counties, not others
For El Dorado County clerk Bill O’Neill, switching to the VCA model in 2020 was a no-brainer. The electoral office receives the majority of the ballot papers in the mail, which means that filling these 128 polling stations was not economical. A 13-member committee unanimously agreed that discontinuing the Revier model was the right decision.
Before the conversion, there were 128 polling stations in El Dorado County. Now, according to the VCA, there must be at least one voting center for every 50,000 registered voters, i.e. at least two in a county with over 137,000 active voters.
“It’s a tremendous effort,” O’Neill said. “Doing that when we were mostly voting by mail didn’t make sense. It made sense that we transition our processes, procedures and equipment to a voting center model that supports both postal and in-person voting.”
El Dorado opened three polling centers eleven days before Election Day — one in El Dorado Hills, one in Placerville, and one in South Lake Tahoe. Four days before the election, the county opened 10 more in smaller towns around the county.
“I think the greatest achievement is being able to serve voters in a polling center that’s almost identical to how we can serve them in our office,” O’Neill said.
But other counties with a similar rural population, including neighboring Placer, are less enthusiastic because of the distances involved in reaching voting centers.
Placer drew widespread criticism for taking longer after November 8 than almost all other California counties to process ballots. Election officials have defended their process as one that is simply very thorough, and while they are open to switching to the VCA model, they will not push for big changes that their constituency does not want to make. There are nearly 280,000 active voters in Placer and on Election Day last month the county had 164 wards to fill.
Placer election officials say they are open to the VCA model but will not enforce it.
“We believe the juice is worth squeezing, and until voters tell us otherwise, we will follow that process,” said Stacy Robinson, Placer County’s public information assistant.
Why Sacramento County made the switch
West of El Dorado in Sacramento County, where the VCA passed in 2018, it took the larger population a year to move from counties to voting centers.
“It was an uphill struggle to educate people about the changes because they were significant,” said Janna Haynes, public information officer for Sacramento County. For many of the county’s 864,000 voters, it was confusing that they didn’t have their usual constituency. Those who were not registered to vote by mail were confused when they received a mail-in ballot.
“There were a lot of questions, and that’s a battle we’re still facing,” she said.
The county made the decision to make the switch after a machine failure on election night in 2016. Given the cost of new machines and the task of finding workers for 550 polling stations in a county where 67% of voters use mail-in voting, it made sense.
“It was almost like we were doing two separate elections — a postal vote and then on election day 550 locations for people who wanted to vote in person,” Haynes said.
The VCA helped consolidate all of these voters into a system that benefited all.
The “biggest gains” in Sacramento under the VCA model are the ability for voters to turn in their mail-in ballots anywhere 29 days before the election, and for the small percentage of voters who still choose to do so in person, the 10 Days to cast your vote in advance.
An early vote is a win all round; Not only is this potentially more convenient for the voter, but it also speeds up ballot counting at the County Clerk’s office after the election. Sacramento, like Placer, was one of the slowest in the state to get all of its ballots counted. Haynes attributes this to receiving tens of thousands of mail-in ballots — which take longer to process and verify than in-person ballots — on and after Election Day.
Other NorCal counties are adopting the model
Sonoma and Yolo counties are the newest additions to Northern California’s VCA model. Both signed in 2022 after switching from “VCA-like” models in previous elections.
In Yolo County, VCA-like means polling centers weren’t open the full 10 days before Election Day — just four, said County Clerk Jesse Salinas, who says he saw a surge in turnout after the election compared to the rest of the state the transition.
“Since we introduced the VCA-like model … we’ve been 4-5% higher than the national turnout average, which was a big jump,” he said.
The June primary and November general election were the first real tests of the entire VCA model in the county, and Salinas was thrilled to report that Yolo’s turnout in last month’s Nov. 8 election was about 7% higher than average of the state, to which he credits the 10 days of early voting and the convenience of voting by mail.
“It all makes it easier for people,” he said.
Staffing hundreds of constituency centers in both Yolo and Sonoma counties was becoming increasingly difficult.
Sonoma County Registrar Deva Marie Proto began conducting VCA-like elections in 2020 when she knew the county would not be able to find all the poll workers it needed — and when she was trying to get her elections in order to plan for the potential of a natural disaster.
“We had a number of fires and luckily they didn’t coincide very closely with elections, but since November was fire season, we were really concerned about how people would vote if an area of the county was evacuated,” she said .
Sonoma County includes the city of Santa Rosa, which was hit by the 2017 Tubbs Fire that killed 24 people, destroyed more than 5,000 homes and forced 100,000 to evacuate. Before the campfire broke out in Paradise the following year, it was the most destructive wildfire in California history.
“The VCA model allowed voters to go anywhere in Sonoma County and cast their vote, and that was one of the biggest reasons for us.”
As in every other county going through the transition, Yolo and Sonoma have their share of rural voters worried about losing their polling places. But, as in the other counties, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
Most election officials agree that the most important thing is to educate voters about their options now that they have so many.
“We have to keep working to spread the word,” Salinas said. Public relations funding from the State Department is critical for all counties making the transition, especially in counties with such diverse populations that require materials in different languages.
The Secretary of State provides funds for informational materials when districts join the VCA, but grants and district budgets must cover other election-related expenses.
“We do social media, we do press releases, we do community meetings to try and get input… I think everyone can see that the model works really well,” Salinas said.