The neighborhood polling place, a staple of American elections, has disappeared as election day arrives in five California counties — the first sites to transition to a sweeping new system dependent on absentee ballots and a limited number of all-purpose voting centers. It is a major change, far beyond the tinkering in years past. And when it spreads to California’s most populous cities and communities in 2020, the new system probably will lead to a rethinking of what it means to conduct an election. “Forget everything you know about the voting process and create an all-new one,” said Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County’s interim registrar of voters.
The new system, crafted by state lawmakers in 2016, is intended to give voters more choices on when and how they cast ballots. Supporters say a focus on a single day for elections makes little sense in the hustle and bustle of 21st-century lives.
Dubbed the California Voter’s Choice Act, the law builds on two growing political realities. First, most voters already have migrated to voting by mail. Fifty-nine percent of ballots were cast somewhere other than a polling place in the 2016 primary. Two decades earlier, it was only 23%.
Second, voting equipment across California is rapidly aging and public dollars to replace it are scarce. In Sacramento County, the largest jurisdiction embracing the new system this year, some 550 neighborhood polling places have been replaced by 78 vote centers. All of the county’s 741,260 voters were mailed a ballot.