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By Shawn Raymundo

With just over two weeks left to go before this year’s Presidential General Election, the county elections office is seeing a historic return on early voting as more than 351,000 vote-by-mail ballots have been cast so far.

As of Sunday, Oct. 18, the Orange County Registrar of Voters collected a total of 351,625 ballots through the mail or at drop boxes. The latest tally marks a 28% increase from the 241,963 ballots that had been collected in the same period of the 2016 General Election.

The Registrar’s office on Monday told San Clemente Times that while it’s still tough to issue any forecasts at this point, the current rate of ballots returned could be an indication that the county will see a historic overall turnout of voters come Nov. 3.

According to the Registrar’s office, officials have noticed a lot of interest and energy going into this election.

Just like in the Primary Election this past March, voters have three options when it comes to casting their ballots: mail it back to the Registrar through the U.S. Postal Service, drop it off at an official drop box, or take it to vote center.

While mail delivery and drop boxes are currently an option for early voting, the vote centers, where people can vote in person or drop off their ballots, are scheduled to open Oct. 30, five days ahead of election day.

The Registrar’s office on Monday couldn’t state for certain whether there will likely be a surge in voter turnout once the centers open. However, it did note that it has received a lot interest in voters wanting to vote in person rather than utilize the mail or drop box options.

According to Primary Election data the Registrar had previously reported, voter turnout in the March 3 elections reached 50.1%, “the highest for a presidential primary election since 2000.” Of those who participated in the Primary, 82% utilized the mail-in option, while the rest chose to vote in-person.

The Registrar’s latest data shows that the county’s registered Democrats are leading the charge on early voting. More than 163,600 Democrats had already returned their ballots while 96,429 Republicans have participated in early voting.

Randall Avila, executive director for the Republican Party of Orange County, said the county should expect to see an uptick in ballot returns from Republican voters once the vote centers open next weekend.

“Republicans are overwhelmingly telling us they’re going to wait to vote in person so we are expecting that,” Avila said based on voter outreach OCGOP has conducted. He later added that “we’re hearing from a lot of them that they’re holding on and waiting.”

Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, said that with the pandemic putting a “difficult strain on the election cycle,” the party has encouraged more people to vote early even though vote centers will soon be an option.

“We will have an opportunity to go to the voting centers, however, I think it’s imperative for folks to vote early instead of having to go to the vote centers if possible,” she said.

According to Briceño, the thought of ousting President Donald Trump from office and electing former Vice President Joe Biden is largely what’s energizing and driving Democrats to get their votes in early.

“There’s a lot of energy, suburban women definitely don’t like Trump, Orange County doesn’t like Trump, so people are going to come out and express their support and enthusiasm around Biden,” she said.

As for the three South County cities, more than 5,800 of Dana Point’s voters have cast their ballots already with 2,488 coming from Democrats and 1,863 representing Republicans. In Dana Point’s Districts 4 and 5, where candidates are seeking seats on its city council, 937 ballots and 1,102 ballots, respectively, had been returned so far.

Just shy of 8,900 votes have been returned in San Clemente, where constituents are participating in two city council races—a General Election for two four-year seats and a Special Election for one two-year seat. Democrats in San Clemente made up 3,706 of the votes while 3,090 Republican voters have turned in their ballots.

More than 4,600 voters in San Juan Capistrano have returned their ballots with 2,040 of them representing Democrats and 1,562 comprising Republicans. In San Juan Capistrano’s fifth district, where two city council candidates are vying for the seat currently held by congressional candidate Brian Maryott, 1,469 votes had been cast as of Sunday.

Though registered Democrats own the majority in Orange County, Republican voters still make up the most dominant party in the three South County cities. According to the Registrar’s data, of the 92,463 ballots issued in Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan, nearly 40,000 of them—about 43%—went to Republicans. Just north of 27,000 ballots were issued to Democrats, or roughly 29%.

But just like the county’s overall numbers show, Democrats in the tri-city area have come out to vote early, making up a larger block of returned ballots. More than 8,230 of the 19,362 votes cast in the three cities so far came from registered Democrats and 6,515 of them came from Republicans.

“While the numbers are what they are right now, I think they’re showing what the voter trends are where Democrats are willing to vote early by mail,” Avila said, adding that there’s a bit of an “assurance issue” when it comes to Republican voters who “want to make sure their votes are counted.”

Expounding on that thought, Avila touched on Republican voters’ reactions to the state transitioning to the vote-by-mail process amid the pandemic.

“They don’t appreciate that this was thrust upon Californians and across the country,” Avila said, also stating that GOP voters have “kind of a feeling like ‘no, I’m going to vote the way I want and in person.”

Acknowledging that the county implemented the new vote-by-mail system under the Voters Choice Act this past spring, Avila said the OCGOP has been working to reinforce the safety aspect of the voting process to local Republican voters.

“We know it’s safe to vote in Orange County whether by mail or in-person … we stand with the (Registrar of Voters) Neal Kelley,” Avila said. He further noted that certain headlines of election issues occurring in other counties have contributed to their apprehensiveness toward early, mail-in voting.

“That’s not Orange County. Orange County has done a good job, Neal Kelley has our full confidence,” he said, adding, “we already had a trial run if you will in the Primary and it was very successful for us and we didn’t take any issue.”

The new voting process, he continued, “does concern (Republican voters) as it should, but it’s up to us to get that message out that it’s safe to vote in Orange County … it’s safe to vote whichever way you choose to vote.”

Briceño said what’s prompting many Democrats to vote early is the president’s rhetoric related to vote-by-mail ballots, as he’s made unfounded allegations that it will lead to widespread voter fraud.

“I feel that the president’s rhetoric around voting, trying to cloud the voting process for Americans, has really backfired and people are wanting to vote because of this,” she said, adding that Trump’s statements expressing doubt on the Postal Service and the California Republican Party’s unauthorized drop boxes have “really cast a shade on democracy.”

In recent weeks, the California GOP has come under fire from state officials after it was revealed that the political party placed unauthorized drop boxes in certain counties, including Orange and Los Angeles, to collect ballots, a practice commonly referred to as “ballot harvesting.”

Early last week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla issued a cease-and-desist order to the California GOP, ordering the removal of the drop boxes, which had been labeled “official.”

News outlets such as NPR reported Friday, Oct. 16, that the state appears to have backed off from its threat to remove the boxes as the party agreed not to place boxes outdoors, leave them unattended or present them as official.

When asked for details on the unauthorized boxes, Avila referred SC Times to the California GOP as the boxes are theirs.

A phone call to the California GOP’s office for comment was not immediately responded to as of late Monday afternoon.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
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.

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