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County votes to study vote centers

REGION — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to study the feasibility of a “vote center” elections model that is increasing in popularity across the state, but with a healthy dose of skepticism from several supervisors.

The proposal, brought forward by District 4 Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, called for the registrar of voters to operate 10 all-purpose locations during the 2020 election cycle where voters could drop off mail-in ballots or cast ballots, regardless of where they live across the county, in the 15 days leading up to the election. Traditional polling places, which operate out of community centers, churches and even garages on election day, would still remain intact.

If the 2020 experiment was deemed a success, the county would study expanding the model for the 2022 election.

“We’re not suggesting we immediately go to there,” Fletcher said in an interview on KUSI-TV. “Really the only change if we are successful in 2020 is that we would add 10 of these vote centers…let folks experience it, try it out, we can learn some lessons and then we could consider doing what by then the majority of California will be doing, which is adopting it wholesale by 2022.”

Five counties statewide — Napa, Nevada, Madera, San Mateo and Sacramento — use the vote center model. According to a study conducted by UC San Diego, the five counties that implemented the vote-center model during the 2018 election cycle saw turnout increase by 4% during the primary and 3% during the general election as compared to the 2014 election cycle.

Board members voted 4-1 on July 9 to authorize the county’s chief administrative officer to conduct a feasibility study that would explore the cost, staffing, security and measures to protect against potential voter fraud. But they didn’t give the 10 centers the green light, citing the need to get the results of the study before making a decision.

“No one is saying that it is a bad idea, but we need to do it in a thoughtful and responsible and a fiscally responsible way,” board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said. “I’d like to see the study before jumping into it. Just because other counties have done it doesn’t mean it’s good for San Diego County.”

District 5 Supervisor Jim Desmond voted against the proposal and voiced his opposition to the vote center model, which he said would potentially disenfranchise voters in rural and unincorporated areas.

“It will provide more convenience and opportunity to that population (living near the vote centers) rather than to the farmers, ranchers or people who choose to or can’t afford to live near the voting centers,” Desmond said. “I think keeping polling places in neighborhoods is important for easy access to the polls for everyone.”

District 3 Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who also espoused her affinity for the traditional polling-place model — which she said gives neighbors a chance to interact — said she wanted the county to also study the feasibility of conducting an independent audit of the county’s voter registration rolls. Her request was included in the measure.

Siding with Fletcher, District 1 Supervisor Greg Cox endorsed the model, which he said he believed would expand voter turnout by giving voters more options and making it more convenient for voters who filled out a ballot in error. Under the current system, they would have to drive to the registrar of voters in Kearny Mesa. In the vote center model, they would be able to correct those mistakes at the one-stop shop.