In the most recent June 5th election, most of the Sacramento County voters were shocked or confused and some were angry. They were unaware that one year prior, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors had fundamentally changed the way we vote. In this election, all voters were mailed absentee ballots, and our 500+ traditional polling locations were closed and replaced with 77 “vote centers” that opened 11 days early to allow a longer voting period. While I was the sole vote in opposition to this switch, I wanted to use this opportunity in my monthly column to explain what we learned and what needs to change moving forward.
One change that will benefit everybody in November when we vote again is for people to take advantage of the vote centers. Not enough people realized that some vote centers were open for 11 days before the actual Election Day (and additional vote centers were open 4 days before the election). There was a serious change in behavior among voters that resulted in only around 10,000 people voting at a vote center – which was only around 3% of the voters. Vote centers sometimes reported seeing only 1 person a day actually vote.
I think I know why this happened. People did not know that even though they got an absentee ballot, they could have thrown it away if they wanted and just gone to the nearest vote center to obtain a ballot and vote. They thought vote centers and drop off sites were the same thing.
Why was this a problem? On Election Day, many voters were turned away because ballot boxes were too full, and some other people reported being stuck in enormous lines. I think we can fix these problems by doing three things.
First and foremost, we need better communication. One of the benefits to this new program was saving money so it seems to me we can find the resources to get the word out more effectively. Some materials were mailed to voters, and banners were displayed throughout the County. We can assess how effective these strategies were and come up with a better way of getting clear information in the hands and minds of voters.
Second, I think we need more drop-off locations, even if that means we have less vote centers. More importantly, we need more drop-off locations outside the City of Sacramento. 65% of all 11 day vote centers were in the City of Sacramento, which only has 32% of voters. We need to make sure there are more convenient locations spread throughout the county with secure bins large enough to accommodate a large number of voters in a single day.
Lastly, we need to make sure people understand all of their options. For many, this may have been their first time receiving an absentee ballot. The postage required can change based on the thickness of the ballot but what people may not realize is that if they mail it without postage, their vote will still be delivered and counted (the county just ends up covering the cost). But for people who do not like mailing their vote, they need to know that they can drop it off or throw it away and receive a brand new ballot at the vote center. Those who prefer to vote in person, like they always have, have the ability to vote at any of the 77 vote centers – whether it is the one closest to home, work or preferred grocery store.
There is some good news though. This year we believe we will end up with a 47% turnout, which would be the highest level in 20 years for a non-presidential primary in Sacramento County. The system needs improvement and if we can capitalize on the good parts while fixing the problems, we can have a great system. As always, I am listening and your opinions are important to me. Let me know how you feel about the changes in the way we vote.