Kern was fortunate that we were able to have a very successful election day on March 3, since the impact of the coronavirus had not yet resulted in the stay-at home orders that have caused so much disruption in other states’ primaries.
However, the vote counting period was challenging. Processing ballots is not something that can be done remotely. But even with reduced staffing and having to limit the number of staff members doing certain tasks in order to follow social distancing guidelines, we were able to successfully certify the election. I would like to applaud the dedication of the elections employees who continued this essential task under very trying circumstances.
I do agree with The Californian’s editorial (“OUR VIEW: Voting shouldn’t be life or death,” April 12). Counties must be given direction by the state now regarding what the rules for the November election will be. Preparations for November are already underway in counties, but without clear guidance from the state, procurement and other decisions will be delayed.
Discussions are being held throughout the state on what form the November election should take. Some groups seem to want to use this emergency to require all counties to comply with the Voter’s Choice Act. We had already determined that the many requirements under the VCA would be unworkable in a county as geographically large as Kern, and one of the goals of the VCA is to encourage in-person voting. That is exactly the wrong approach during this public health emergency. We should be encouraging vote-by-mail, while still providing in-person voting opportunities for those voters who need some sort of assistance to vote.
The solution that my office and several other counties are proposing is to recommend that the governor issue an executive order authorizing 100 percent vote-by-mail while encouraging counties to make in-person voting opportunities available in a manner consistent with public health and safety, to maximize voter accessibility. This is substantially the same order the governor has already issued regarding special elections being held in the state this spring.
In November it is extremely likely that we will have difficulty in recruiting volunteer poll workers if we attempt to retain the traditional poll sites. Many poll workers are retirees who may be particularly vulnerable to the virus. Therefore, in Kern we anticipate such an executive order would result in setting up satellite elections offices in outlying areas instead of poll sites to handle any in-person voting needs, while strongly encouraging voters to complete their voter registration at least two weeks before Election Day, which would give us enough time to mail them a vote-by-mail ballot.
We would also encourage voters to vote early. That way, if they lose or spoil their ballot, there is time for us to send them a replacement. Conditional (same-day) voter registration would still be available at the satellite elections offices, but hopefully the need for this would be greatly reduced.
In the March primary, more than 70 percent of the ballots cast in Kern County were mail-in ballots. Since we compare the signature on the return envelope with the signature on file and confirm that they match before counting the ballot, this is an extremely secure method of voting. Our existing sorting and tabulating equipment can handle the increase to 100 percent vote-by-mail. There would be additional costs for postage, printing and signature verification, but we anticipate these would largely be offset by reductions in poll site costs, including poll worker recruitment, training and stipends.
On April 21, my office is taking a resolution before the Board of Supervisors, recommending that they add Kern’s voice to the counties recommending that Gov. Newsom issue an executive order authorizing 100 percent vote-by-mail for the November election, but leaving the counties the flexibility to determine the best way to make in-person voting available based on the public health situation in each county at that time.
As The Californian said in the editorial, “The goals…must be to keep voters and election workers safe, while protecting the integrity of the vote.”
Mary Bedard is the Kern County registrar of voters.