A pandemic and record-setting wildfires are putting unprecedented challenges on election officials this year. Neighborhood polling places such as schools, churches and nursing homes have been harder to secure, and voting locations must adhere to strict safety guidelines. Furthermore, when 21 million ballots are mailed to voters next week, thousands of Californians displaced by wildfires might be unable to receive ballots.
This puts pressure on voting locations to be ready to receive large amounts of people safely. Some counties are preparing by converting stadiums, and even museums, into vote centers. Dodger Stadium and the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara are among the large arenas that will accommodate in-person voting.
To get an idea of what in-person voting will look like this year, I asked Neal Kelley, chief election official for Orange County, about how he is preparing. Mr. Kelley said all workers will be outfitted in personal protective equipment, including face coverings and gloves. They will wear aprons containing disinfectant supplies and will offer face coverings to unmasked voters, although they cannot force people to wear them, he said. Voting stations will be disinfected after every use and hand sanitizer readily available. Voters will be given their own pens to complete ballots, which they will also scan themselves. There will be a dispenser for “I voted” stickers that people can help themselves to.
Starting Oct. 30, Mr. Kelley said there will be 170 vote centers open in Orange County, including the Honda Center, an indoor arena with 20,000 square feet of usable space. Forty-two of the vote centers will offer drive-through options for ballot drop offs and voting. Drive-through voting operates much like a fast-food restaurant, where ballots are exchanged through a vehicle’s window. There are also 116 ballot dropboxes installed throughout the county.
Even with protocols in place to make voting in person safe, mail-in voting will most likely be more popular. In the March primaries, eight out of 10 people in Orange County used mail-in ballots. Mr. Kelley said he expected the number to be similar this fall.
And mail-in ballots will be processed quicker than they have in the past. Because of changes made in response to the pandemic, mail-in ballots may be processed up to 30 days before Election Day, a change from 10 days before in previous elections.
One important thing to remember if you decide to vote in person is, depending on where you live, you should bring your unused mail-in ballot to surrender at the polls.
Fifteen counties, including Orange, Fresno, Sacramento and Santa Clara, are participating in the Voter’s Choice Act model, which allows voters to choose from several vote centers in their county. Vote centers are equipped with electronic poll books and ballot-on-demand printers. Voters will have a ballot printed for them upon checking in and their mail-in ballot will be voided automatically.
But for counties using traditional polling places, voters must surrender their mail-in ballots at their polling place. However, if they don’t have them, they can still cast a provisional ballot, which is processed and counted once the elections office can verify the voter’s registration.
Although Mr. Kelley expects most people in his county to vote by mail, he said he is ready for a flow of in-person voters. “I’ve got 300,000 pens in our warehouse,” he said.
[Read more: What to know about voting by mail.]
An update on the wildfires
In the most destructive wildfire season in California history, the state is rapidly advancing toward a record four million acres burned in a single year. Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma and Shasta Counties, where two enormous fires, the Glass and Zogg Fires, are raging.
By Thursday evening, the Glass Fire, which began as three separate fires on Sunday, had consumed more than 56,000 acres and was 5 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for much of the Bay Area into Saturday as dry, windy conditions are expected to continue. Currently, there are over 12,000 residents under evacuation orders, according to Santa Rosa officials. “More evacuations are possible,” Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said during a briefing on Thursday.
The Zogg Fire in Shasta County reached 26 percent containment by Thursday evening and had burned over 55,000 acres. The fire has killed four people and destroyed 147 structures, according to Cal Fire.
Mr. Essick acknowledged during a news conference on Tuesday that people in the community are suffering from “significant fire fatigue.”
To add to the misery, the third anniversary of the Tubbs Fire, which devastated parts of Sonoma and Napa Counties, is coming up. “This is the fourth major fire in our community since 2017,” he said. “Many people are feeling the effects, many people are evacuating, and have evacuated multiple times, and I just want everyone to know that we continue to support you.”
What caused the Glass Fire and where did it originate? Cal Fire officials believe they know where it started but not why. [San Francisco Chronicle]
How California’s Diablo winds could make fires even more destructive. [The New York Times]
As famous wineries burn around them, a couple in Napa County decides to ignore evacuation orders and stay up all night defending their home. “We’re just regular people,” they said. [The Mercury News]
The Red Cross has provided more nights of shelter to Americans this year than at any point on record, a sign of the widening human toll of climate change. [The New York Times]
A running list of Napa Valley wineries destroyed by fire. [The Mercury News]
Unhealthy air quality is spreading throughout Northern California. Just how bad will it get? [The Sacramento Bee]