Wanted: Vote centers

Sacramento County elections officials are searching for 30 more voting sites for the November election. (Photo from Sacramento County elections office)

Editor’s note: Sacramento elections officials need more safe polling places for November—and poll workers, too

There’s a lot of coverage and consternation—rightly so—about President Trump’s efforts to suppress and sabotage mail voting in the November election.

In his desperation to stay in power, he’s repeatedly warning about nonexistent fraud. His campaign is going to court to stop broader mail balloting. His handpicked postmaster general is intentionally slowing deliveries, and the Postal Service is warning that mail ballots may not be delivered in time. And Trump is even openly admitting he opposes more Postal Service funding to block more mail ballots.

Former President Barack Obama says Trump is trying to “kneecap” the Postal Service. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco is calling back the House to pass a bill to block the operational changes and boost funding by $25 billion, and Democrats are hauling Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in front of committees to explain his actions. Tuesday, DeJoy pledged to halt his initiatives until after the election, though he apparently doesn’t plan to restore the changes he already ordered.

California is in better shape to overcome all this than other states because there aren’t Trump minions in charge of elections to aid and abet his nefarious moves. Still, this will be the first election in which all registered voters in the state will get a mail ballot. And there will be more voters than ever before—20.9 million as of July 3, compared to 18.1 million at the same point in 2016.

Plus, there are other potential problems, as election officials try to keep voters safe during a deadly public health crisis.

For instance, the Sacramento County elections office is still seeking vote centers.

It is legally required to have 84, but had only 53 confirmed (including Golden 1 Center, in partnership with the Sacramento Kings) when officials put out an urgent appeal on Aug. 13: “We will consider ANY space, no matter how large or small…We are also willing to provide deep cleaning services after the election to any location.”

The situation became less desperate by Aug. 14, when they were able to add 12 more, with 25 potential sites to check. Election officials are under an Aug. 28 deadline to line up the others so they can be included in the official voter guide.

They need voting sites that will be available from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, particularly in Natomas, Elk Grove, Folsom and Rancho Cordova, which all have important local races and ballot measures as well as statewide ballot measures and the presidential contest.

These larger vote centers replaced more than 500 traditional polling places in 2018 as Sacramento County was one of the first in California to mail ballots to all voters. One hurdle is that previous polling locations, including schools and community centers, are being used during the COVID-19 pandemic for child care, job assistance programs and food distribution, as well as coronavirus testing, officials say.

These vote centers, and drop-off sites, will become even more important if there are problems with mail delivery of ballots. The elections office put out an update on its COVID-19 safety plan for polling places.

The lack of polling places isn’t the only concern.

Like many other counties across California and the nation, Sacramento is facing a potential shortage of poll workers. Many are older or retired, and they’re understandably afraid of contracting the virus.

The county pays $13 an hour for clerks at vote centers, who have more flexible hours, including working only on Election Day. Those who speak a language other than English get paid more. Inspectors, who supervise sites, get $16.47 an hour, but they must be available 10 days before the election. And the county also pays $16.47, plus mileage expenses, for ballot transporters, but they must be available 28 days before the election.

There’s a push to recruit younger workers, including high school students who can earn community service hours as well as some money.

On Aug. 12, Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office launched a new online portal to sign up poll workers. Applications will be passed along to county elections offices.

“This year, many Californians that would normally volunteer are being asked to stay home for their safety, so we need the next generation of poll workers to step up and meet this moment,” Padilla said in a statement.

On Aug. 14, Obama also urged young and healthy people to work at polls to help our democracy. And the U.S. Election Assistance Commission is promoting Sept. 1 as National Poll Worker Recruitment Day.

But there’s more time to deal with this issue. First things first, which means finding businesses, community groups, public agencies and others to offer safe places to vote in Sacramento County.

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