California elections officials suggest schools as voting sites for social distancing

Elections officials across California, seeking a way to offer in-person voting in November with strict coronavirus protections, are urging lawmakers to close schools and allow campus gyms and auditoriums to be used in the days leading up to and including election day.

The proposal was made this week in a letter to legislative leaders and comes as county officials face tight timelines to begin preparing for the Nov. 3 election.

That process has been overshadowed by Gov. Gavin Newsom's order earlier this month to mail a ballot to every California voter - a change that, while sweeping in its impact, would not keep voters from choosing to participate in person instead.

"We wanted to provide a solution" for safe voting sites, said Joe Holland, registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County and president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Elected Officials. "Schools have facilities that are big enough to accommodate in-person voting with the COVID-19 environment that we have to deal with."

Elections officials say the four weekdays in question - Friday, Oct. 30 through Wednesday, Nov. 4 - could easily be designated as "in service" days, during which teachers and personnel are on campus but students are not.

Holland said public health requirements, especially regarding size and social distancing, would make most traditional polling places unworkable. Schools also have more consistent access for disabled voters, he said, and are easily found by voters seeking to cast their ballots.

Several prominent education groups had not heard about the proposal when contacted Friday.

State Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), chairman of the Senate's elections committee, said the best path forward would be to first see what can be agreed to without a mandate from Sacramento.

"It does seem that schools are a community asset that is accessible," Umberg said. "That's a conversation to be had between local school officials and local election officials."

Secretary of State Alex Padilla suggested Friday that the idea has merit.

"Schools and colleges alone will not provide all the voting locations we will need this November, but they have historically been a major source of voting locations and we will need them again this fall," he said. "The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an enormous challenge for county elections officials to adjust their operations."

Any decision will come later than Newsom envisioned. His executive order requiring counties to mail ballots to the state's roughly 21 million voters called for clear guidelines by the end of May on how counties will provide traditional in-person voting. At best, a decision is now unlikely before mid-June.

There were more than 2.7 million Californians who voted in person for the March presidential primary - more ballots than those cast in most states' elections. But far more California voters, 72% of those who participated, chose to fill out a ballot sent to them in the mail.

A survey released Thursday by a team of researchers from USC, UC San Diego and UC Riverside came to a similar conclusion, finding almost 72% of eligible voters prefer either to put their ballot in the mail in November or drop them off at a location in their community. Those who don't are more often found in communities of color or are voters with physical disabilities.

Wilma Franco, executive director of the Southeast Los Angeles Collaborative, told those attending an election webinar this week that changing those voter habits will be hard.

"It's really going to take new ways of reaching our community," she said during the event sponsored by the nonprofit Future of California Elections.

Exactly how many in-person voting centers will be required remains a point of contention. Fifteen California counties, choosing to embrace an optional 2016 state election law that moves away from traditional polling places, provide one location for every 10,000 voters in the final four days of an election - sites that offer a variety of voter services. But 43 other counties have chosen not to opt into that system and could find that formula difficult.

In its letter to the Legislature, the association of elections officials suggested one location for every 15,000 voters. Holland said even that standard will be challenging in some communities, especially given that the most reliable elections workers - Californians in their 60s and 70s - are also those considered to be most at risk during the pandemic.

"Can I, in good conscience, even ask them to be a poll worker in November?" Holland said.

Newsom's push for mailing every voter a ballot faces its own challenges. On Thursday, former Republican Rep. Darrell Issa filed a challenge to the executive order in federal court, insisting only the Legislature could make such a sweeping change. The governor Friday dismissed the criticism.

"I think it's a responsible thing to do to encourage people to vote and have an alternative to waiting in line," he said of voting by mail, "especially going back into the fall and experiencing a second wave that could put that election at risk."

For those who choose to vote in person in November, ideally bringing their mailed ballots with them, a number of changes are expected. Dean Logan, the registrar of voters in Los Angeles County, said Thursday during the election webinar that face coverings and gloves will be offered to Angelenos who use local voting centers in the fall.

L.A. County experienced a number of problems with in-person voting in March, but Logan told election advocates during Thursday's event that his staff believes the opportunity is essential and can be improved upon in November.

"We have to build a capacity for that," Logan said about in-person voting. "We need to be more direct and more emphatic in informing voters that we're open and available."

Using schools for a four-day voting experience could hinge on money. Elections officials are already insisting November election rules can't be implemented without additional state dollars, and schools may be hesitant to change their schedules without some sort of compensation. Funding for K-12 schools depends, in part, on daily attendance numbers.

Holland acknowledged the challenges but said the coronavirus crisis could be remembered as creating a partnership that could be used in future elections too.

"It would be a huge achievement for democracy in California," he said. "We would be partners and the voters and the citizens of California would greatly benefit."

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