May 21, 2020 | Voter’s Choice Roll-Out in Fresno County: The Promises and Perils of Universal Mail-In Ballots

A large banner saying “Vote Here/Vote Aquí” outside the Fig Garden Library vote center in the City of Fresno at Bullard and Marks avenues. Photo by Hannah Brandt.

By Hannah Brandt

Starting with the California 2020 primary election, Fresno and nine other counties implemented a new voting system based on a 2016 law, the California Voter’s Choice Act. These counties joined five others, including Madera County, that began Voter’s Choice for the 2018 midterm election. Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth said one factor in Fresno’s decision to carry out the law was Madera County’s claim to an increase in voter turn-out with their shift to Voter’s Choice.

In Fresno County, all registered voters were sent vote-by-mail ballots 29 days before the election. All residents of Fresno County were allowed to register to vote on Election Day and people could cast their ballots at any of 53 vote centers or 43 drop boxes in the county. All the vote centers were open for voting four days before Election Day and 10 of them were open for voting 11 days before Election Day.

Despite some successes, the launch included long lines at vote centers (which replace polling places), large numbers of mail-in ballots with incorrect details, and widespread confusion. Anytime changes are made to the voting system, especially ones that involve decreasing the number of places to vote in person, the vote will be suppressed. According to Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, when Sacramento County instituted Voter’s Choice in 2018, it went from having 600 polling places to only 84 vote centers.

A map showing the 15 counties from Butte in Northern California to Orange County in Southern California that have implemented the California Voter’s Choice Act as of March 2020. All but four–San Mateo, Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and Orange–are inland counties. Photo from California Secretary of State website.

Fresno County had 268 polling places in the 2018 midterm election, which is far more than the 53 vote centers and 43 drop boxes after Voter’s Choice. The City of Fresno alone had 170 polling places before Voters Choice, only 28 vote centers and 21 drop boxes afterward. Some in Fresno County must travel a long distance to a vote center or drop-box. Requesting a mail-in ballot, however, is no longer necessary to vote by mail.

The effort to carry out Voter’s Choice California has been led by the Future of California Elections, the ACLU of California, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-California, California Common Cause, Disability Rights California, the League of Women Voters of California, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

The Future of California Elections says their goals are “broad, diverse voter participation” and giving people the opportunity to choose when, where and how they vote. Their motto is “modernizing elections, expanding participation.”

Three young women of color demonstrating voting in a ballot dropbox. Photo from the League of Women Voters of California’s Voter’s Choice website

So has Voter’s Choice accomplished its goals so far? Did it in Fresno County? What of the claim that it will virtually eradicate the use of provisional ballots, which are often cited as a form of voter suppression because they are counted last and often rejected? There is also evidence that people of color are issued provisional ballots more frequently than whites. And with the outbreak of COVID-19 causing an increase in voices advocating for universal mail-in ballots in the November 2020 general elections, and in some cases in future elections, is that the prescription for increasing voting and ending voter suppression?

As to the first question, the answer is no. The announcement made by the Future of California Elections introducing the Voter’s Choice program in May of 2017 acknowledged that “in the initial years of implementation, the law also presents the risk of voter confusion and reduced participation, especially among communities already under-represented at the polls.” It seems odd that an organization advocating for expanded access would admit their program will have the opposite impact initially.

The statewide plan has been to tackle these issues through voter education strategies and community involvement in the design of county voting plans. Fresno County held five community information meetings to introduce the program in February 2019, one in Kerman, one in Sanger, one in Clovis, and two in Fresno. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to implement Voter’s Choice in March 2019 and roll it out by March 2020. According to a University of Southern California poll reported in Capital Public Radio, only 37 percent of residents in all the counties making the switch were aware of Voter’s Choice.

A wall of graffiti in San Francisco. The word “vote” is written in many different colors and styles. Photo by wiredforlego via Flickr Creative Commons.

Fresno Free Press attended the community meetings held in the City of Fresno throughout 2019 and 2020. We can report that there were eight Voters Choice meetings in Fresno between February 2019 and February 2020 to determine how many and where to put the vote centers and drop-boxes, as well as how to reach the community, including in several of the various languages spoken in the City of Fresno. Attendance at these meetings ranged from a handful of people to as many as 50 residents.

While community input was taken into account when deciding where to put vote centers and drop-boxes, fewer of each were created than community members asked for. This was due in large part to the way the need was determined. Instead of using the total number of residents in a neighborhood to establish demand, the county used the number of already registered voters. Rather than increasing the number of vote centers for the last three days of voting, as required by the California Election Code, Fresno County simply increased the number of drop boxes.

Basing the number of vote centers on the number of registered voters versus residents has been the policy of all the counties implementing Voter’s Choice because that is all that the California Voters Choice Act requires. Given that Voter’s Choice touted having same-day voter registration, this is counter-intuitive and may have accounted for the long lines at some vote centers.

As per the California Voters Choice Act and California Election Code, only 1 vote center is required per 50,000 registered voters for the first six days of voting. For the final three days of voting, there must be 1 vote center for every 10,000 voters. Info from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lines were so long in Fresno, in fact, that some people gave up and left without voting. As the L.A. Times reported, this was also a problem in Los Angeles County, which implemented a modified version of Voter’s Choice. Fifteen percent of voters in L.A. reported waiting for more than two hours and 10 percent waited longer than three hours. Five percent of the new voting machines also crashed in L.A., accounting for some of the delays.

Unlike Fresno County, L.A. county did not mail ballots to all registered voters, only to those who had requested a mail-in ballot. Therefore, the vote was further suppressed in L.A. Additionally, failing to use paper back-ups of voter lists caused chaos when digital tablets malfunctioned. These outcomes confirm concerns that groups who have historically been underrepresented continued to be in the 2020 California primary election.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality that in-person elections have and could continue to spread the deadly virus, some states are planning to hold their November general elections using solely mail-in ballots. Furthermore, there are growing calls for elections to transition to universal mail-in ballots alone permanently. Five states have already done so: Oregon in 2000, Washington in 2011, Colorado in 2013, Utah in 2018, and Hawaii in 2019. Fresno County Clerk, Brandi Orth claims that 86 percent of Fresno County voters voted by mail in 2019.

A graphic from with the California state symbol of the grizzly bear and the words, Vote California.

Although President Trump has railed against moving to universal mail-in ballots, the practice still favors Republicans. Trump himself voted absentee in the last election as did many of his family. Some members of the GOP have long advocated for pulling funding from the U.S. Postal Service and Trump has reintroduced that sentiment. If the U.S. Postal Services were erased or scaled back, this would obviously make voting by mail harder or even impossible. Mail service–especially by private companies like FedEx and UPS–is unreliable in unincorporated areas of cities and in rural communities.

As the NAACP and the Center for American Progress wrote this month, “Making it easier to cast ballots from their homes is vital for helping to stem outbreaks and for ensuring that people who are quarantined or acting as caregivers during these difficult times can participate in the democratic process. That said, in expanding vote by mail, officials must be careful to maintain, and in some cases even expand in-person voting options. Eliminating or reducing in-person options would inadvertently disenfranchise many African American voters, voters with disabilities, American Indian and Alaska Native voters, and those who rely on same-day registration.”

Why does vote-by-mail disenfranchise the poor and people of color, especially African Americans? The closing of polling places is higher in low-income communities and communities of color. In the March 2020 primary, the town of Lancaster in Los Angeles County–which has a high African American population for California at 22 percent–had zero vote centers. This caused local leaders to be concerned about the African American vote being suppressed. People who are struggling with poverty are more likely to be housing insecure, meaning they do not have a secure, permanent address.

A sign saying “Your vote counts” in red, white and blue. Photo by Renee Silverman via Flickr Creative Commons.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused U.S. unemployment to reach 36 million people, soaring to heights not reached since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Fresno County, unemployment has increased by five percent in two months and the number of jobs has dropped by 20,000. Despite the temporary aid to reduce the financial burden of COVID-19 by federal, state, and local governments, many more Americans are likely to be evicted from their homes during and following the pandemic. This will increase the limitations of mail-in voting.

African Americans are the ethnic group most likely to have moved, with a moving rate three times that of White Americans, or to not have a fixed address. Black people also make up 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness in California but only 5 percent of the total population of the state. People struggling with homelessness are often unable to vote due to not having an official street address. Mail-in voting also does not serve people who rely on same-day registration, one-fifth of whom were African Americans in 2018.

If access has not expanded with Voters Choice, then why do it? A central reason for the change is old voting equipment. Fresno’s was more than 20 years old. Instead of getting updated equipment for 268 polling places in Fresno County, it was much less expensive to decrease the number of in-person polls to 53 vote centers, create 43 drop boxes, and mail all registered voters ballots to offset this. The California Voter’s Choice Act only required 50 vote centers and 30 drop boxes. Similar calculations factored into the massive decrease of in-person voting locations in other counties implementing Voter’s Choice.

Limiting access to in-person voting can never ensure democracy. Going forward, more vote centers based on the number of residents and not just registered voters, that are well-resourced with plenty of qualified personnel will be required to meet the needs of all communities in California, including the Central Valley. Vote-by-mail is an essential method of casting ballots for many and should not be eliminated or decreased. It cannot be relied upon to be the sole means of voting, however, and is by no means able to sweep away all forms of voter suppression.

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