Tom Fulks

Why is SLO County Elections Office making it harder for people to vote?

San Luis Obispo County will continue with neighborhood precinct voting in 2020.
San Luis Obispo County will continue with neighborhood precinct voting in 2020.

It appears Tommy Gong, San Luis Obispo County’s top elections official, has decided to get into the voter suppression business.

The county clerk-recorder is refusing to implement a state law, SB 450, that allows counties to send vote-by-mail ballots, with postage-paid return, to every registered voter.

When I spoke to Gong on Wednesday, he told me he’ll get around to it in 2022, a full six years after the law was adopted as a result of California’s record-low voter turnout in the 2014 elections.

Senate Bill 450 was passed to eliminate barriers to voting and to encourage greater voter participation. In addition to sending every voter a mail-in ballot, the law calls for replacing multiple neighborhood polling places with regional centers where residents can drop off their ballots over a designated number of days leading up to Election Day. They can also go there to vote in person.

Gong’s delay means a significant fraction of eligible voters in SLO County won’t receive mail ballots in 2020 — a presidential election year in which California will play a dominant national role due to its historically early March 3 primary — unless they go to the effort to ask for one.

Yes, it doesn’t seem terribly difficult now for many of us to register and ask for a mail-in ballot, or to take time off from work or school, go to the polling place on Election Day and cast one. But for many folks the barrier is real, for whatever reason, and they end up forgoing their voting franchise

What’s Gong got against making it easier to vote? There’s no excuse for maintaining obstacles that discourage so many Americans from participating in our democracy.

When I spoke to Gong, he confirmed he plans to delay initiating the SB 450 vote-by-mail approach until the 2022 mid-terms. He proffered myriad excuses, which mirror his reasoning for not doing so in the 2018 election either

  • Too many people already are planning to vote in the March 2020 presidential primary and November general election. Come again?

  • Adding changes to the way people vote will cause chaos at voting centers and confuse voters who don’t follow instructions.

  • It would add financial burdens his office can’t afford.

  • More voters exercising their franchise would stretch the resources of the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office too thin.

  • There would not be enough election workers to staff the voting centers for multiple days.

  • It would require adding new equipment.

  • It might result in fewer people voting, not more (even though there is no evidence of this from counties that already implemented the law).

In other words, doing the job Gong was elected to do — making voting accessible to all voters — is just too hard.

County Supervisor Bruce Gibson said last week that Gong hasn’t made a financial request of the board to implement SB 450, nor has he informed the board of his intention to delay its rollout until 2022.

This, is despite Gong’s promise to the board in 2017 that he’d reconsider his decision for 2020, upon explaining his decision to not implement SB 450 for 2018.

Voter turnout in SLO County during the presidential general election in 2016 was strong (83 percent). Still, increasing turnout among our county’s 170,000-plus voters by even a couple of percentage points translates into thousands of votes that otherwise wouldn’t be cast.

Political futures are sometimes decided by a handful of votes. Ask 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton, who eked out re-election last June by 60 votes.

One would think Gong, elected to manage elections and encourage citizen participation in the democratic process, would prioritize implementing SB 450.

Yet, he fears “too many” voters casting ballots.

That he hasn’t is great news to vote suppressors, i.e. Republicans, who usually benefit from lower voter turnout — thus the spate of voter suppression tactics in states like South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, North Dakota — everywhere Republicans control the levers of political power.

Political experts across the nation anticipate the 2020 election, and California’s Super Tuesday primary election in particular, will generate record turnout. And the stakes — local to national — are huge.

Given Gong’s delay of SB 450, it appears he’s setting up SLO County to avoid setting any voter turnout records next cycle.

Modern technology and our standards for accessing the election process have changed. His failure to meet those standards is tantamount to suppressing votes.

Gong is up for re-election in 2022.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs in rotation with conservative columnist Ed Bogusch.

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