By Claire Booth
California’s primary election was earlier this month, and in my county they threw a few interesting twists into the process. We were one of only a handful of counties statewide to test several new procedures, like early voting and drop-box locations.
I know other states have some or all of these features already. We just like to take our time here in the Golden State. Make sure something works on a small scale before we go big and it all goes to hell.
Anyway, one change this election cycle was that every registered voter automatically got a mail-in ballot. Before, you had to request one, so lots of people didn’t bother and then forgot to vote in person on Election Day. To try to increase turnout this time, the mail-in ballot came in the mail with all your other election paperwork whether you wanted it or not. And boy, did you have options as far as returning it. You could mail it in anytime up to and including Election Day. You could fill it out at home and take it to a drop-box location (list helpfully enclosed in the envelope). You could take it in person to a polling place. Lots of great, easy options.
So what went wrong? (Because you know things did.) First – and this was not clear on the helpful list – the drop-boxes were only accessible during that location’s operating hours. So voters who showed up at 7:30 a.m. on Election Day with their completed mail-in ballots, expecting to drop and go because that’s when polling places are open, ended up shoving envelopes under the doors of closed libraries and churches. It was as if grown adults were forced to revert to their childhoods, when they’d slide notes under their sisters’ bedroom doors apologizing for hitting them.
Second, people are procrastinators. Most of them waited until Election Day to mail or turn in that mail-in ballot. Which meant that counting the votes is taking forever. A week after the June 5 Election Day, the county election office announced that it still had 200,000left to process. That is not a typo. It is a good news/bad news number. The good news is that if most of those are valid, it would increase voter turnout by more than 16 percent, to more than 46 percent of registered voters. That is an enormous amount for a non-presidential year. The bad news is that there are races that still don’t have official results yet. Processing that many mail-in ballots takes a lot of time, my friends (especially if you’re retrieving them from under the doors of libraries and churches – because yes, those ones did count).
But for me, the most flawed aspect of this Election Day was less any kind of error and more the lack of a choice. I am one of those people that goes to the polling place. Every time. I chat with the workers, I fill in my little bubbles, I feed the paper into the machine, I chat some more, I slap on my “I Voted” sticker, and I saunter out into the sunlight of democracy. It makes for a good day’s work.
This time, the polling places were consolidated, so instead of your neighborhood location, there were a few centralized “hubs.” Boo. That was no fun. I didn’t recognize the poll workers, nobody bothered to bring cookies, and the signage sucked. It did not make me want to increase my voter turnout. Has this new procedure beaten me into submission? Will I now succumb and just put the damn thing in the mail every time? Probably not, if only because I’m spectacularly stubborn. I’ll keep voting in person. But I do want my neighborhood polling place back. Heck, neighborhoods get harder and harder to maintain in today’s world as it is. Don’t take away one of their bedrock foundations.
I’ve voted in churches, in libraries, in the county registrar’s office. The best polling place was when I lived in Bellevue, Wash., just across from Seattle. There was an assisted living facility just down the street, and that was the neighborhood polling place. There has never been a better pairing of people and activity. Those residents hung bunting and flags, made cookies, and stood at the door to welcome you. And you could tell that it made their day. It made mine, too. No drop box is ever going to equal that.