Election staff counting ballots
A member of the Santa Barbara County Elections Office counts ballots cast in the March 3 election. The county has not yet certified the results.  (Courtesy photo)

November’s election will be entirely vote-by mail if Santa Barbara County Elections Office head Joe Holland has his way.

“I don’t think we can hold a traditional election,” Holland said last week, adding that the county will have trouble getting poll workers and even polling locations.

The county had 900 poll workers at 86 polling places for the March 3 election, and given the demographics of local poll workers, a good percentage of them would be considered at-risk for coronavirus complications due to their age.

“We’re looking at going all vote by mail, and will try to put in place as many in-person voting opportunities as possible, being that it has to be done in a healthy manner and a safe manner,” said Holland, the county’s Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters.

The county could establish election centers, or other in-person methods that use social-distancing guidelines, but as of now, Holland said he has no idea what those would look like.

“Some people want to make sure the in-person voting experience is there, and I would love to do it, but are we really going to ask poll workers to put their lives at risk?” he said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency declaration that extended the canvass period for the March 3 election, and an order to allow vote-by-mail procedures in three upcoming special elections.

Elections officials are asking for another declaration to let counties conduct vote-by-mail elections in November, Holland said.

Santa Barbara County’s Elections Office is adding the cost of vote-by-mail-only election in its proposed 2020-21 budget, and the county’s printer already confirmed it could handle the larger volume of ballots and envelopes, Holland added.

“We’re already about 77 percent vote by mail, so it’s not that big a jump to add the other 50,000 people who are not permanent vote by mail,” he said. “And there would be some offsets because obviously, we would not have 86 polling places like we did in March.”

Santa Barbara County has about 175,000 of its 227,000 registered voters signed up as permanent vote-by-mail voters.

“A person’s more likely to vote if you send them a ballot and they have the ballot in their hand, that’s just a given,” Holland said, adding that the vote-by-mail percentage turnout almost always exceeds the turnout of in-person voters.

“I’m actually concerned if we don’t get this, then hundreds of thousands of voters across the state will be disenfranchised because they won’t want to put themselves at risk and go to a polling place on Election Day,” Holland said. “By sending everybody a vote-by-mail ballot, I see it as the best way to make sure we get a good turnout. I think November will be the biggest election in our lives, in terms of votes cast.”

Santa Barbara County counts ballots that are postmarked on Election Day (or before), and contacts people whose signature on the envelope doesn’t match their records, or forgot to sign it, Holland said.

“We’re doing a lot of things to make sure we can count as many vote-by-mail ballots as possible under all circumstances,” he said.

There are 15 California counties that have implemented the Voter’s Choice Act, in which ballots are mailed to all registered voters before Election Day and voters can mail it in, drop it off in a ballot box, or visit a voting center to fill it out and turn it in, or vote using a voting machine.

Santa Barbara County is not one of them, and neither are neighboring San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.  

How to hold elections during a pandemic is being considered all over the country, and California has a better foundation to shift to a mail-in election since it is already a widely used system.

“To put it in context, we should recognize that throughout the nation’s history, Americans have gone to the polls — in times of war, during the Great Depression, and even during the deadly 1918 flu pandemic,” Secretary of State Alex Padillo told the Public Policy Institute of California.

“So it’s not a matter of if or when we’ll hold the election. We have a date: it’s Tuesday, Nov. 3. It’s a matter of how we hold the election in a way that is accessible, secure, and healthy for everyone—voters, elections personnel, poll workers. Many things California has championed to get more people voting really make a lot of sense in an era of public distancing.

“You can register to vote online. Voting by mail and in-person early voting are good ways to avoid crowds. We’re diligently working on expanding those opportunities.”

As ProPublica reported last month, some states are not set up to successfully transition to a vote-by-mail election by November.

“While mail-in ballots seem like an elegant solution as the United States grapples with containing COVID-19, experts say slow-moving state and county governments, inconsistent state rules and limited resources to buy essentials such as envelopes and scanners could make it difficult to ramp up nationally to reach more than 200 million registered voters in the November general election.

Among the possible downsides of a quick transition are increased voter fraud, logistical snafus and reduced turnout among voters who move frequently or lack a mailing address,” ProPublica reported. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.