California moved it’s primary election to March. That means the 2020 Primary is only a year away. But before that happens, the Fresno County Elections Office plans to update its voting process by adopting the Voter’s Choice Act model.
“Right now, Fresno County utilizes the precinct model, meaning that there are over 268 polling locations throughout the county,” says Brandi Orth, Fresno County Elections Clerk and Registrar of Voters. “Voters are assigned a specific polling location to go to because their specific ballot will be there.”
With the precinct model, you have to vote at your assigned polling place. Otherwise, you might miss out on voting in races that affect you locally, like picking your councilmember, congressman, or deciding on a local tax measure.
Under the newly approved Voter’s Choice Act election model, you don’t have to worry about going to one specific polling place. In fact, you can vote at any of the fifty voting centers as early as ten days before the election.
“You could go anywhere in the county, and we will have your specific ballot there, and you could also do it more according to your schedule,” says Orth. “The other thing is everyone will receive a ballot in the mail.”
Orth has spent the last month hosting listener sessions and presenting the Voter’s Choice Act model to Fresno County residents. Based on listener feedback, nearly two-thirds of the residents who attended those sessions thought the new model would improve voting. Those against the model voiced concerns about accessibility, and vulnerability to voter fraud.
But Orth says that adopting the model will mean her office has to devote resources to addressing accessibility and preventing fraud. That’s why Orth chose to recommend that the Board of Supervisors adopt it for the 2020 Elections.
Just north of Fresno, Madera County has already made the switch.
“It allows them to make the choice of whether or not they want to vote by mail, whether they want to vote at a Vote Center, whether they want to drop their ballot in a drop box,” says Madera County Clerk Rebecca Martinez. “It provides more opportunity, and definitely more days.”
From outside of the Madera County Government Center, one remnant of the 2018 election is a white metal box, larger than a mailbox, with black text on all sides explaining its function in three languages. There are five of these ballot drop boxes throughout Madera County. Since every voter is mailed a ballot under the Voter’s Choice Act model, the drop boxes are a secure way to return them, since they’re emptied daily once ballots are mailed out.
One challenge for Madera County was making sure voters understood the changes.
“We advertised at movie theaters, we advertised at the drive-in, passed fliers out at the swap meet, we did over 50 presentations,” says Martinez.
Overall, voter turnout did increase in the 2018 election, compared to Madera County’s last midterm.
No matter what, Martinez says the same question always comes up: Where do I go to vote? She says that question will be asked again in 2020, but with the Voter’s Choice Act model, there’s more than one right answer, since voters can go to any Vote Center.
That’s something Kingsburg City Councilmember Jewel Hurtado is looking forward to in Fresno County.
From outside of Park Kingsburg, a retirement community, Hurtado explains how the polling place she was assigned changed between 2016 and 2018.
“In 2016, this is where I voted in the general election, so that’s why I was a little torn when they said it was going to move,” says Hurtado.
Park Kingsburg has been a polling location for years, and still was one in 2018, but it wasn’t where Hurtado was assigned to vote.
Last year, when Hurtado ran for city council, the city decided to move from at-large voting to districts. Park Kingsburg is not within Hurtado’s district, so she was assigned a polling place in Downtown Kingsburg. Hurtado says she didn’t even realize the change when she received her ballot, and says she spent a good chunk of her campaign also explaining the switch to her neighbors.
Hurtado says many of them had the same concern: “I had a lot of people in my district say, well I work in Fresno, by the time I get off work and make it to the polling place,” there’s no time left to vote.
Once the Voters Choice Act Model is fully implemented, Hurtado will probably have to explain changes to her neighbors all over again, but she’s hoping the pros outweigh the cons.
“It just might be a little bit more convenient for them to go on their lunch or their break, or whatever,” says Hurtado. “To just get it out of the way and get it done because they know it's important, it's just hard to find that time within that one day.”
With the new model, every voter will receive a ballot in the mail, and they will also have up to ten days to find a Vote Center and cast their ballot in advance of the election.
After Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth recommended adopting the Voter’s Choice Act election model, the Board agreed, with three supervisors in favor and Supervisor Brian Pacheco opposed. Fresno County voters will experience the update when they go to the polls in March of 2020.