Santa Clara County lawmakers express concern with costs of all-mail election

Santa Clara County lawmakers on Tuesday debated a plan to roll out all-mail elections in 2020 and replace precinct polling places with 125 “vote centers” that would be open much for up to 11 days before Election Day.

Some supervisors however, expressed doubt, citing the biggest drawback to the plan — its price tag.

“I’m on the fence,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who support sending every resident a vote-by-mail ballot, but believes that the plan itself is too costly. “The ongoing expenses concerns me, because I want to get the most bang for our taxpayers’ buck. If more people are voting by mail, then why do the 10 million dollars if we see less need for polling stations?”

Under the proposed plan, voters could go to any vote center to cast a ballot and every voter would receive a vote-by-mail ballot. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the implementation plan in early April.

Twenty-five vote centers would open for 11 days before Election Day and 100 would be open for four days. Opening the vote centers early “will mean a more inclusive and accessible voting experience for working families and others who have difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day,” said Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey.

Her office found that 71 percent of voters would be more likely to go to a vote center near their work or school — rather than their home.

The potential changes are spurred by Senate Bill 450, dubbed the Voter’s Choice Act. Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, the landmark election reform bill expanded early voting and required sending vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters 28 days before an election.

“Is there some additional cost? Of course there is. Do we have to be mindful of that? Yes, we do,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian. “I’ve done election supervision in El Salvador and Bosnia where people literally gave their lives for the ability to go cast a ballot.”

“If we have to spend a buck or two to make sure that people get the chance to vote, that’s going to be one of the expenditures this county makes that I won’t abridge,” added Simitian. “This is foundational, this is fundamental. This is how we should be spending money.”

The plan calls for increasing ballot drop-off boxes in Santa Clara County, Bushey said, and result in faster election night results and a reduction in duplication of ballots. Five California counties — Napa, San Mateo, Sacramento, Nevada and Madera — have expanded their voting systems under the new legislation. In Sacramento, the first all-mail election under SB 450 resulted in a rise in voter turnout to nearly 46 percent.

At the meeting Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Tamara Raspberry noted that early community engagement and creating an implementation coalition were significant in the successful adoption of the plan within the five California counties.

Priya Murthy, Policy and Advocacy Director of the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN), said her organization supports the plan to expand voter participation, especially through robust outreach efforts.

“We saw the implementation of the VCA in San Mateo County result in one of the highest voter turnouts in the state,” Murphy told the supervisors Tuesday. “This went hand in hand with in person outreach. We urge you to support transitioning to the VCA to help ensure that more individuals from diverse communities are able to cast their ballot on election day next year.”

Vote-by-mail ballots accounted for more than 77 percent of all ballots cast in Santa Clara County in the Nov. 2018 election. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, nearly 75 percent of eligible residents in Santa Clara County are registered to vote. Education and outreach efforts listed in the plan would specifically target unregistered voters.

“For many working Californians it may make more sense to cast a ballot the week before Election Day at a location closer to where they work, or where they drop off their kids, or where they go to college,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who visited San Jose last week, said in a statement. “Why limit voting to one location on a single Tuesday?”

In a memo to county lawmakers, Bushey acknowledged the plan’s implementation would “increase labor costs for poll workers, rental fees for voting centers, printing and postage costs, and voter education and outreach.”

According to county documents, voter education and outreach would cost $2 million, labor costs for poll workers would cost $6 million, voting center rental fees would cost $2 million and postage and printing would cost $2.4 million.

““The outreach that you’re describing in terms of VCA, I feel that we should be doing regardless,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said on Tuesday. “I think that we could increase our voter turnout by educating and outreaching more on the current process. We’re going towards more and more people who are choosing to vote by mail. Dropping your ballot in a mailbox is more convenient than going to a voter’s choice center.”

If approved by county supervisors, voter education and outreach would begin over the summer with the changes taking effect in the 2020 elections.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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