Perhaps no part of California has thought more about the future of voting than Orange County. And yet when it comes to a sweeping change to state elections, the county has decided to take a pass. In fact, recent events serve as a cautionary tale that changing elections is hard, even when the plan is praised by “good government” advocates as the kind of reform that will make voting fit in better with the way we live and work. Less than two weeks ago, the Orange County Board of Supervisors quietly scrapped years of work by its elections officials on a plan to swap neighborhood polling places for universal absentee ballots and a limited number of all-purpose vote centers. There, voters could access a variety of election services — including last-minute registration, a few voting booths and a place to drop off absentee ballots. There would also be ballot drop boxes in heavily trafficked areas of the county.
The system was blessed by a state law enacted last year, allowing 14 counties — Orange included — to implement the system for 2018. The rest can do so in 2020.
The county’s registrar, Neal Kelley, has been a statewide leader of the effort. Absentee ballots are already so popular, he noted in a report to supervisors, that in a few years “more than 1,000 polling places would stand nearly empty on election day” unless the county changes its approach to voting.
In recent weeks, though, local Republicans have voiced fears of voter fraud under the new system — an unusual reaction, given it relies on the same absentee ballot process that’s been in place since the end of the Civil War. Nonetheless, Kelley’s request to move to the all-mail system was denied without discussion at the June 13 board meeting after a motion by Supervisor Todd Spitzer.