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The Tribune: For $164,000, SLO County could have made it easier to vote in 2020. Supervisors said no

The head elections officer for San Luis Obispo County just pitched a plan to the Board of Supervisors to “increase voter enfranchisement and participation” in 2020 that would cost the county about $164,000.

The board majority rejected it because of the price tag.

“I don’t think we can spend that money now,” Supervisor John Peschong said at the Tuesday meeting.

That morning, the board had heard a rough financial message that it needed to tighten its belt. That afternoon supervisors heard a lively conversation about voter disenfranchisement.

On the agenda was the question of whether the county, which tends to have a relatively high record of voter turnout, should adopt a new voting process that most board members agree is the future of voting. The issue has become divisive in the county, with partisan-based accusations of voter suppression.

The current system allows for vote-by-mail ballots or traditional polling place voting on the day of elections. More than 70 percent of voters now prefer vote-by-mail.

The new system allowed under SB 450 would mail ballots to all registered voters, making it the default, and would replace polling places with voting centers. There would be fewer voting centers than there are polling places, but they would be open for 10 days before the Election Day instead of just on Election Day.

Members of the public, including representatives of the county Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters, encouraged the county to switch to the new system, saying that it would enfranchise voters who can’t get to the polls and that it’s an example of social and economic justice.

Others, including supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton, countered those sentiments, saying that getting rid of polling places would instead disenfranchise voters who know that system.


County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong recommended postponing full implementation of SB 450 in the county, saying that his department doesn’t have the money (it would cost the county $406,000) nor the capacity to fully and effectively implement the system in an election year that he expects to have the highest voter participation ever — something he was criticized for both by a liberal Tribune columnist and by left-leaning supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson.

Gong replied that “we could get there today if you approve the money.” This is the second election cycle in which Gong could have implemented the new system, but instead SLO County has joined a vast majority of counties in not doing so.

Instead, Gong proposed to work toward the new system without closing the polling places that many elderly and rural residents, and other voters, rely on.

His less-expensive “option 2” proposal — at a cost of $164,000 — included opening four satellite locations for weekend voting and conditional voter registration voting.

There is evidence from the 2018 election that increasing those operations across the county would work.

On Election Day in November 2018 and the prior weekend, hundreds of would-be voters flooded the San Luis Obispo County elections office to fill out their ballots.

Most of them were there to vote under a conditional registration — a new process — because they missed the voter registration deadline, something was wrong with their ballot, or they never received a ballot.

The San Luis Obispo office was the only location in the county equipped to facilitate conditional voter registration, and the ability to help those voters led to hundreds of votes cast that would not have been otherwise, Gong said.

Gong proposed to expand those services in the 2020 election and open four satellite locations for weekend voting and conditional voter registration voting in the North County, South County, on the North Coast, and at Cal Poly.

Both Gibson and Hill supported the proposal; Supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong voted against it, based on the cost.

Instead, the board majority supported additional voter education and outreach — at no cost — and agreed to consider placing vote-by-mail drop-off boxes around the county. That project will be considered at a future meeting.

“It’s unfortunate,” Gong said in a phone interview after the meeting, “because I thought this was a way that we could test the waters (of the new system).”

He hasn’t requested money from the county to implement SB 450, he said, because in the past he was concerned about the technological requirements to assure voter safety. Whether it will be implemented at all is a question of when and how, he said.

“It’s going to come down to, do we have the financial means to do it? And right now, they aren’t willing to spend the money on it,” Gong said.

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