County Clerk Polling Voters

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

April 23, 2021

Just about everything in 2020 was changed because of the coronavirus pandemic, including elections nationwide, as well as locally. The San Luis Obispo County Clerk is now asking voters for input on how elections should be conducted in SLO County going forward.

County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong announced the “San Luis Obispo County 2021 Voter Survey,” being conducted online now at: www.slovote.com.
Gong’s news release said, “2020 was an eventful year of elections, starting with the March 3 Primary, followed by the historic, Nov. 3 Presidential General Election. “Both elections set records — highest number of registered voters, most ballots cast, and the highest number of vote-by-mail ballots — respectively, for primary and general elections in the county’s history.”
Last March’s Primary in SLO County was the usual “polling place election,” but the November Election “required many changes due to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Gong said.

The State changed the election rules for November and the County was required to send vote-by-mail ballots to all the voters, a stark change from the normal method of voter’s having to request a mail-in ballot. However, voters here have for some time had the option to be placed on permanent vote-by-mail status. COVID, which did not become a “health emergency” until well after the March 3 Primary, changed everything.
“In response to large numbers of poll worker and polling place cancellations over safety concerns,” Gong said, “counties were allowed to have fewer in-person voting locations [in our case, 23 voter service centers in November vs. 75 polling places in March], but they were larger locations where poll workers and voters could physically distance and be provided personal protective equipment.”

In Morro Bay that meant the church on Ironwood Avenue where ballots have been cast for decades, wasn’t open and in-person voters were actually limited to just the Community Center (the Vet’s Hall was also closed).
The State also extended the normal, 1-day polling to a 4-day election “to give voters additional days to cast their ballots in person. Voters could go to any voter service center within the county to vote in person.” The election also saw numerous “ballot boxes” put out around the County. And though there were fewer places to go and vote, it caused more headaches.

“The operation at voter service centers required much more technology to perform live check-in of voters and print the specific ballots on which they were entitled to vote based on their residence address,” Gong said.
Also, “due to capacity limits and prioritization, the following communities did not have a voting location: Cayucos, Creston, Shandon, Santa Margarita, and San Miguel.”

Still, the November 2020 Election set local records. There were over 184,050 registered voters — the highest ever, and over 162,615 ballots were cast. The county turnout was 88.35%, shattering the previous record of 83.14% set in 2008, when ex-President Barack Obama was on the ballot.
The biggest 2020 shift came in mail-in voting, which naturally follows if you mail ballots to every registered voter. Some 154,741 people voted by mail, for a whopping 93.3% of total voters. And just 9,874 voted in person, according to Gong’s provided statistics.

The County is reportedly “at a crossroads” for conducting future elections and wants voters to chime in. Gong said, “I want to hear from voters how they would like elections to be conducted. I also want to increase public confidence in elections, so this survey will give voters a chance to voice their concerns or provide any input.”

He added that the survey will help form the recommendations he will make to County Supervisors in a report for the Elections Office’s budget.
The County will next conduct a planned election at the 2022 Primary, which has to be budgeted for in the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget that Supervisors should pass in June.

FY 2021-22 runs from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022. There’s also the matter of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall.
“With a possible recall election at the end of the year,” Gong said, “it is an opportunity for the county to go back to polling places or continue with a voter service center operation.”

Gong said he would present his analysis of the issue and results of the voter survey to Supervisors at their May 3 meeting. His recommendation will be made as part of the budget process and take into account whatever direction he gets from Supervisors.
The voter service center option would require Supervisors to budget more money to pay for it. However, the record turnout might prove a benefit worth the extra expense.

Early results of the survey will be presented on May 4, Gong said, and complete results would be presented in the June budget hearings.
The deadline to take the survey is May 25. See: www.slovote.com to take the survey, and please, unlike elections, just one survey per voter.

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