By Shawn Raymundo
Changes are coming in the way voters in San Clemente and the rest of the county cast their ballots starting with the 2020 Primary Election in March.
The County of Orange next spring will move away from the traditional precinct polling sites and begin to utilize vote centers, giving voters the choice to either submit their ballots via mail or deliver them in person to various locations around the county prior to the day of elections.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors in February approved the implementation of the new vote-center model, which is allowed under the California Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) that former Gov. Jerry Brown enacted in 2016.
“In 2018, almost 70% of the registered voters in Orange County voted by mail,” David Goulding, a representative of the Orange County Registrar of Voters, told the Planning Commission on Dec. 4. “They sent in a ballot or they dropped off a ballot at a polling place. Most people aren’t voting in person, so there’s a need to have a place to drop off their ballots, because that’s what they choose to do.”
According to the OC Registrar of Voters, more than 1.1 million vote-by-mail ballots were issued to the county’s voters, making up nearly 70% of the total registered voters in Orange County.
Ahead of the state’s Primary Elections on March 3, voters in the county will receive vote-by-mail ballots. They’ll then have three options to cast their votes: return the completed ballot to the county registrar’s office via mail; drop the ballot into a drop-box location; or deliver it in person to a vote center, similar to precincts.
Voters can personally take their ballots to any one of the vote centers and metal drop boxes within the county, regardless of the city in which they reside.
According to a city report to the Planning Commission, there are to be a minimum of 32 vote centers opened throughout the county 11 days before the election. Another 161 vote centers will open around the county four days prior to the election.
So far, the Fireside Room at the San Clemente Community Center has been designated as an 11-day vote center, with the Aquatics Center Friends Room selected as one of the four-day vote centers. The county, the city notes, is looking to establish three more four-day vote centers in San Clemente.
None of those additional sites has been set as of yet, but the office of the Registrar said it is currently working with the city to determine those additional sites and find the ones that will best serve voters. In terms of having a specific date to firm up those locations, the office said its goal is to have them chosen by the end of this month.
The VCA also requires there to be one drop-box location for every 15,000 registered voters. With about 40,000 registered voters in San Clemente, the city must have three drop boxes set up.
The city notes that the metal drop boxes located throughout the county will be available for voters to submit their ballots starting 29 days ahead of the election and will be open 24 hours a day during voting periods.
The location of those drop boxes must meet certain VCA requirements, including proximity to public transportation hubs, parking availability and accessibility to voters with disabilities, to name a few.
And while it’s not a requirement, Goulding noted, it’s a desire of the registrar’s office that the drop boxes be placed where there are security cameras to monitor the sites.
According to the Registrar’s office, the drop-off boxes will be locked outside of an election period and unlocked during the 29 days leading up to the election, making it available 24 hours a day for ballot submissions.
There won’t be security personnel stationed at each drop box, the office noted, but said the boxes will include a phone number for voters to call to report any vandalism or other issues that might occur.
“They’re large, they’re secure, they’re accessible, they’re locked,” Goulding told planning commissioners during their Dec. 4 meeting, later adding: “They’re opened by our staff and closed by our staff. No one touches the ballot box except for us.”
Pursuant to license agreements with the cities and participating retailers and shopping centers, the county will install the boxes at the various sites, incurring responsibility for associated costs, maintenance and upkeep. The boxes themselves are about 50” in height and 65” wide.
In San Clemente, the county had proposed four possible locations for the drop boxes, leaving it to the city’s planning commissioners and councilmembers to decide which three sites will be used.
The four proposed locations: San Clemente City Hall at 910 Calle Negocio; San Gorgonio Community Park at 2916 Via San Gorgonio; the Municipal Golf Course at 150 East Avenida Magdalena; and Forster Ranch Community Park at 3207 Camino Vera Cruz.
Planning commissioners met on Dec. 4 to discuss the proposed sites and narrow them down to the three locations that they could recommend to the city council for final approval. In the end, the commissioners nixed the San Gorgonio and Forster Ranch parks from consideration and added the Jim Johnson Memorial Sports Park to the list.
Before agreeing on the recommended list for the council, the commissioners first sought to address an aspect of permanence regarding the site locations.
“I think they’re all OK temporarily,” Commission Vice Chair Michael Blackwell said. “I would like to see this come back; I would like to see the frequency of usage and have more time to review more permanent locations.”
With the clock winding down until California’s Primary Election in early March, the county is looking to have the drop boxes installed by the end of January, so the local voters can have the full 29-day window to cast their votes.
In order to get those mounted in time, the city is scheduled to present the recommendations to the council at its next regular meeting on Dec. 17. But feeling the pressure of needing to get the locations confirmed, some of the commissioners were concerned with the finality of it all.
“I don’t like having to make a decision with the gun to our head like this. It’s like what I candidly do with my 13-year-old: I give him two choices, (tell him to) choose one, and both of them are fine with me,” Commissioner Jason Talley said. “I honestly feel like this is a cop-out from the county.”
The commissioners wanted to know what sort of commitment the city would be making with the county in terms of the length of the license agreements to mount the boxes.
Senior Planner Stephanie Roxas told them that while the current drafts of the license agreements were for five years, they could recommend to reduce the length to a more desirable amount of time.
“So, if Planning Commission is concerned about the permanency of this and wishes to revisit this in the future, you could recommend reducing those time frames in terms of those licensing agreements,” Roxas said.
Backed by his fellow members, Commission Chair Jim Ruehlin said he would be in favor of such a recommendation.
“I would be in favor of doing that, having it there for a year and bring this back to us so we can evaluate which ones are in use . . . see if there’s better places for these,’ Ruehlin said.
“I’m seeing some nodding heads,” he noted of his colleagues on the dais.
“Sixty days, let’s get through the Primary,” Talley quickly suggested.
“One year,” Commissioner Don Brown countered.
Ruehlin chimed in to ask Goulding if 60 days was a feasible time frame while proffering that a one- to two-year contract would likely be more sufficient.
Goulding noted that the license agreements should be able to stand for a least one full election cycle, explaining that the county would like to be able to collect data from the same locations during both the Primary and General Elections.
“OK, so one year,” Ruehlin said.
Location, Location, Location
In its report to the planning commissioners ahead of the meeting, the city noted that City Hall, San Gorgonio and the municipal golf course were the preferred locations for the drop boxes, because they “would provide convenient and accessible locations equally dispersed throughout San Clemente.”
However, many on the commission disagreed with having a drop box at San Gorgonio, believing it to be too isolated and not a highly trafficked area. Commissioners Zhen Wu, Brown and Talley had suggested throughout the meeting to drop it from the list.
While the commissioners were supportive of the golf course, ultimately voting in favor of recommending it to the council as a location, there was an initial concern with its placement at the facility, as it was too visible from the right of way.
After a majority of the commission voted in favor of placing the first drop box at the golf course, Talley made a motion to recommend that the second box be put at the Jim Johnson Memorial Sports Park, because it’s a central location in the city.
“If you’re really looking for centralized use and you’re actually wanting to encourage people to utilize these . . . I think that’s a good location,” Talley had said earlier in the discussion. “I’m sure that city staff can figure out how to make that work.”
Prior to the motion, Ruehlin had expressed concern with proposing new locations because staff hadn’t had a chance to vet all of them yet. He later asked Roxas whether the city would have enough time to make a report on the Jim Johnson location before the council’s Dec. 17 meeting.
“Yes, there would be enough time to take a look and walk the site as long as we have county staff available also to do an assessment,” Roxas said.
The commissioners voted, 4-2, to include the Jim Johnson park on the list, with both Ruehlin and Brown dissenting, as they remained concerned over the timing and lack of research for the site.
As for the city hall site, Roxas explained to the commissioners that city staff had concerns with installing the drop box in front of the building, because it would be “visually dominating.” Instead, she asked that it be placed behind the building and allow the city to post signage around the facility directing voters to its location.
Talley, however, proposed that the drop box remain in the front of the building so it could serve as a reminder to city staff that they’re in the service of the people of San Clemente.
“I kind of like the fact that every day, city employees walk by something that reminds them they serve the people,” he said, adding that “it’s a symbol . . . it’s something that we should be proud of and be reminded every day about.”
The council voted unanimously in favor of including city hall on the list of recommended sites for the council, leaving the proposed placement of the drop box in the front of the building.
City staff will present the Planning Commission’s recommendations to the city council during its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 6 p.m.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.