SLO County doesn’t want to give up neighborhood polling places. Here’s why it should

Civility breaks down at the Board of Supervisors over 2020 election presentation

San Luis Obispo County Supervisors Adam Hill and Debbie Arnold argued over plans for the 2020 election, at the board's meeting on Feb. 5, 2019.
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San Luis Obispo County Supervisors Adam Hill and Debbie Arnold argued over plans for the 2020 election, at the board's meeting on Feb. 5, 2019.

It’s time for a reality check: Voting is different now.

In San Luis Obispo County, roughly three out of every four voters mail in their ballots, rather than waiting until Election Day to troop to neighborhood polling places. Given that high percentage, the logical next step would be to phase out neighborhood precincts and convert to mail-based elections, which is now an option under state law.

But that’s not what County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong will be recommending to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Gong advises sticking with the traditional voting precinct model in 2020.

The conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors, which authorizes funding for elections, is likely to side with him.

Gong’s reluctance is understandable — his office would face several challenges to get ready by 2020 — but the delay is nonetheless disappointing.

Here’s why:

  • Staging a full-fledged election with 77 polling places is excessive and inefficient when we have a rapidly dwindling number of in-person voters — sort of like renting a huge banquet hall for an handful of diners.
  • While there is no definitive evidence that all-mail elections boost turnout, that was the trend in 2018 among five California counties that piloted all-mail voting. Sacramento County, for example, set a record for a midterm election with a 68 percent turnout, compared to a dismal 48 percent turnout in 2014.
  • There would be some initial expenditures, but over time it would likely save the county money.

Gong does raise some valid points about the difficulties his office would face in preparing for a mail-based election, but we’re confident he and his dedicated staff can meet those just as well, if not better, than any of the other counties making the change.

So why delay?

After all, this isn’t a surprise that’s suddenly being sprung on voters.

There’s been discussion of pros and cons of mail-based elections in San Luis Obispo County for at least 10 years. SLO County finally had the option of piloting all-mail voting in 2018, but Gong concluded the county wasn’t ready.

He’s saying much the same thing now, and that’s angered some local Democrats who believe the system would make it easier for more people to vote.

Tom Fulks, a Tribune columnist and member of the local Democratic Central Committee, accused Gong of “getting into the voter suppression business” in a recent column.

Supervisor Adam Hill also has weighed in; when Gong made a short presentation to the Board of Supervisors a few weeks ago, Hill accused him of having already dismissed all-mail voting — without looking at how it might be accomplished. He would have said more, but Board Chair Debbie Arnold intervened — and eventually cut off Hill’s microphone.

We don’t believe for a second that Gong is deliberately trying to suppress votes, or that he’s trying to give Republicans an edge.

He’s already proven that he takes a dim view of voter disenfranchisement by standing up to Supervisor Lynn Compton in the June 2018 election, when she filed a lawsuit ordering him to stop processing mail-in ballots that were being checked for signature discrepancies.

That said, Gong has shown an over-abundance of caution in focusing on the challenges of switching to all-mail voting, rather than on the long-term advantages.

We’re concerned, too, that Gong could be underestimating the capacity of voters to adapt to change. For example, he worries that replacing 77 local polling places with 20 vote centers — per requirements of the state law on mail-based elections — would “cause voter confusion and discontent on Election Day.”

“Having them (in-person voters) all show up at 20 locations would produce long lines and unhappy voters who are used to going to their poll and taking minutes to vote,” he writes in a staff report.

Shutting down local precincts would be a disappointment to some voters — neighborhood polling places are a beloved tradition — but surely a public information campaign could alert them that they could face long lines if they go to a voting center to cast a ballot.

Gong is suggesting some changes in 2020:

  1. A public education campaign to let voters know they can sign up to automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot for every election.
  2. Purchase of 15 ballot drop-off boxes (three for each supervisory district) for placement at sites that get a lot of foot traffic, like city halls, post offices, libraries, supermarkets, Cuesta College and Cal Poly.
  3. Opening four satellite locations in Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay, Paso Robles and Cal Poly the weekend before elections. That way, voters would not have to travel to an Elections Office to, say, pick up a replacement ballot or register to vote after the deadline — an option now available through the conditional voter registration process.

Those are good steps. In fact, they closely follow some of the measures required for all-mail elections.

But it’s time to go further.

Sending each and every registered voter a mail-in ballot would be a convenience, not a disservice.

We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to consider that on Tuesday.