As counties across the Bay Area make final preparations for an unprecedented presidential election, local elections officials are seeing record-high voter registration numbers and report that they are prepared for an election that will be conducted almost entirely by mail.
“We’re encouraging people, if possible, to vote from home instead of going to a vote center,” said Evelyn Mendez, a staff member at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Office.
Although in-person voting is expected to drop significantly in the Bay Area as a result of the pandemic, the prospects of voting by mail are not tempering voters’ engagement in the electoral process. Voters in California and across the country are highly engaged in the upcoming election, according to data published by the Pew Research Center in August. The percent of registered voters who said that “it really matters” who wins the 2020 presidential election was 83%, the highest at any point in the last 20 years.
As of two weeks ago, 993,000 individuals were registered to vote in Santa Clara County, according to Mendez. The election office is projecting over 1 million registered voters in the county by Election Day. Voter registration data released in July by the California Secretary of State shows that nearly 81% of the eligible population of Santa Clara County was registered to vote in the 2020 presidential election, in contrast to 73% in the 2016 presidential election. The county has an estimated population of 1.928 million.
Across the bay in Marin County, which has a population of 258,826, 94% of eligible voters are registered to vote in the November 2020 election. In a statement to The Daily, Marin County Registrar of Voters Lynda Roberts wrote that over 170,000 individuals were registered to vote for the November election, up from approximately 160,000 in previous years.
While high voter registration numbers do not always translate into high voter turnout in elections, Mendez said that “this is one of the most historical elections drawing a lot of attention for every reason, even with COVID, so [turnout is] going to be high.”
In light of the pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in May that required county elections officials to send a vote-by-mail ballot to all registered voters for the Nov. 3 general election, even though California voters could already request a vote-by-mail ballot for any reason.
The state legislature codified this measure and others into law over the summer, passing Assembly Bill 860, which provides for vote-by-mail ballots for all Californians, and Senate Bill 423, which outlined measures for consolidated polling locations and ballot drop-off locations.
In an interview with the Stanford News Service, Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and co-founder of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, raised concerns that procedural rules for counting vote-by-mail ballots were most likely to disproportionately affect minority voters. He said making sure all mail-in votes are counted nationwide remains a top concern. The Healthy Elections Project, which studied election data from Florida’s 2020 primary election, reported that Black and Latino Americans, first-time voters and young people were less likely to have their vote counted due to a mismatched signature or the ballot being received late.
The prospects of vote-by-mail ballots flooding election offices has also led to concerns that the results of the election may not be determined on election night or in the following days.
Persily later said at a Stanford event that although “we should all be prepared for a long election accounting process,” it is likely that the country will know the results of the election within 24 hours of the polls closing. While a surge in mail ballots are to be expected, many states begin opening presidential ballots before Election Day and elections officials have been preparing for months, according to Persily.
Elections officials in both Marin and Santa Clara County are confident that their respective counties are prepared for an election conducted almost exclusively through vote-by-mail ballots since a large majority of registered voters in both counties have already been voting by mail in past elections.
87.5% of Santa Clara County voters in the 2020 presidential primary election voted by mail in part because of the county’s decision to participate in the California Voter’s Choice Act, a law that aims to modernize the election system and provide voters with flexibility. The election model requires participating counties to mail every registered voter a ballot, expand early in-person voting and allow voters to cast a ballot at any vote center in the county.
The presidential election will be “business as usual” for Santa Clara County, Mendez said, adding that conducting elections primarily by mail “is something that the county is already familiar with.”
Marin County, which has not adopted the model set out in the Voter’s Choice Act, still sees a large majority of its elections conducted by mail. The county estimated that over 70% of all ballots cast in the June 2018 statewide primary election were vote-by-mail ballots.
While Marin and Santa Clara County do not expect any new challenges related to sending ballots to all registered voters for the upcoming election, the counties said that final election results could be delayed if they receive a large number of mail-in ballots on Election Day or in the period following the election.
This election, California counties are required to count ballots if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and arrive up to 17 days after the election, as opposed to three days in previous elections. The period was extended following Postal Service delays that could have impacted mailed ballots. Some Stanford graduate students living in the Escondido Village Graduate Residences have reported issues with voter registration and mail delivery.
Counties are permitted to begin opening and counting vote-by-mail ballots 29 days before the election, although results cannot be publicly announced until the polls close on Nov. 3, according to Mendez. Roberts told The Daily that results announced on election night typically only include mail-in ballots received until three to five days before the election.
“Receiving more ballots several days before Election Day means less processing after the election and we can certify the results sooner,” Roberts wrote.
California polling places and vote centers will be open for at least eight hours from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, and from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Nov. 3. While some Santa Clara County vote center locations have changed since previous elections, Mendez confirmed that Stanford’s Tresidder Memorial Union will continue to serve as a vote center for the presidential election.
Ballots can be dropped off at vote centers, polling places and the county elections office during business hours. Vote centers and polling places will operate with social distancing measures, and personal protective equipment will be provided to voters and poll workers.