Orange County Is About To Go From 1,200 Places To Vote To 188. Why That Could Be A Good Thing

File photo. The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a new model for voting in elections that is set to begin in 2020. As a result, many neighborhood polling locations will close and be replaced by regional vote centers. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP)

By Jill Replogle and Mary Plummer

The Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a switch to vote centers on Tuesday — a move that clears the path for dramatic changes to the way OC residents will cast their ballots starting in 2020.

The board vote, which was unanimous, will reduce the county's 1,200 polling places to just 188 vote centers.

Those vote centers will be open for voting and registration for up to 10 days prior to the election. Voters can cast ballots at any vote center in the county, eliminating the provisional ballots that voters currently cast if they go to a polling location other than the one where they're registered.

All voters will receive ballots in the mail prior to the election, and those ballots can be mailed back or dropped off at any of the vote centers.

The Board of Supervisors' decision makes Orange County the seventh California county to adopt vote centers since the state legislature passed a bill to allow the new election model in 2016.

THE LAST TIME THIS WAS ATTEMPTED

All of this comes after a failed attempt in Orange County to switch to voting centers back in 2017. At the time, concerns about voter fraud were raised by some members of the board.

Back then Republicans held every seat.

Now the board has one Democrat, Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee, and three Republican supervisors. A fifth seat is vacant pending a March 12 special election.

The previous lack of support for vote centers in Orange County had been a rebuke to Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, who's been a high-profile backer of the Voter's Choice Act.

In a statement released after the vote on Tuesday, Padilla called the decision a great move for democracy.

"By adopting the Voter's Choice Act, Orange County continues to be a national leader in administering accessible and secure elections," he said.

COMMUNITY SPEAKS OUT

At the Tuesday meeting, several dozen Orange County residents spoke passionately in favor of adopting vote centers, including members of OC's Asian and Latino communities, school board members and voting advocates.

Vincent Tran, community engagement coordinator for the civic group VietRISE, said voting centers would encourage turnout among residents who work and study far away from their traditional polling place. He said his mother was able to vote in the 2018 election thanks to the county's pilot vote centers.

"I was able to take my mother to go vote on a Sunday," Tran said. "Any other day it would've been incredibly difficult for my mom to go vote on her own. We both work full-time. My mom works the night shift."

Supervisor Andrew Do led the vote in favor of adopting vote centers, telling the public "we hear your support loud and clear."

VOTER'S CHOICE ACT

Under the landmark voting overhaul package signed into law by former Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, counties across the state have the option of closing many neighborhood locations. Officials can then open new polling places called "vote centers," which along with other changes, are aimed at making voting more flexible.

Under the model, a much smaller number of vote centers are available compared to traditional polling locations, but voters in counties that switch over have access to new features: they can vote over several days, choose which location they prefer to vote at and register to vote at the last minute.

There's also a much larger push toward getting voters to cast ballots through the mail, a practice that's been growing steadily in California.

Most Republican state lawmakers voted against it.

OC Registrar Neal Kelley said he thought the Board of Supervisors may have warmed to vote centers after last year's successful elections using the model in Madera, Napa, in Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo counties.

In addition, Kelley said, vote centers are likely to decrease the number of provisional ballots cast when voters go to the wrong polling place or lose their mail-in ballot and vote provisionally at polling places, a phenomenon that bogged down the 2018 elections and slowed results.

NEXT STEPS IN ORANGE COUNTY

The OC Registrar will now put out a request for proposals to equip vote centers.

Kelley estimated the cost at between $11 million and $19 million — about half the estimated cost of providing new equipment for traditional polling places, which are aging and in need of replacement.

The Registrar's office is also narrowing the field of potential vote center locations. Kelley said he's eyeing retail spaces and big community centers. He said voters will likely have to travel about a mile farther than they did to vote at traditional polling places.