Closely watching turnout in 5 counties trying a new system to spur voting

It’s election day—and a crucial test for five California counties experimenting with a new election method designed to boost anemic turnout: replacing local polling places with mega-voting centers and widely dispersed dropboxes.

Thus far, returned ballots in those five counties amount to almost 60 percent of the ballots cast in the counties’ last midterm primary, in 2014. That vote four years ago, of course, was abysmal: Only 25 percent of registered Californians voted.

“Our projected goal was to be a bit higher (now),” said Sandra Sjoberg, assistant clerk recorder of registered voters for Nevada County. “It’s been a slow return on getting our ballots in from the voters. Our voters are apparently waiting until the last possible minute.”

Napa County Clerk John Tuteur said their pre-election day voter numbers are not unusual. “We get substantial numbers on election days or after election day,” he said, referring to mailed ballots that arrive later but are postmarked on election day. “It’s always been that way.”

Both noted that voters are using the dropbox option. “The dropboxes have exceeded my expectations,” Tuteur said . “They have been very successful.”

Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo counties are the five counties using voting centers, which have been designed to replace polling places and serve as one-stop shops for all things voter-related. Voters can register, vote and submit their mail-in ballots at any vote center in their county.

The 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, which established voting centers, also required every registered voter in these counties receive a mail-in ballot.

Will voters in these counties not be baffled by the new changes? Will they turn out for today’s election? Experts and county officials certainly hope so.

“It’s too early to tell what voter turnout will be, particularly in a new system, because we don’t know what the pattern will be for voters,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a non-partisan research group. “But we did expect that this year would probably be a better year for turnout, certainly better than 2014.”

On the eve of election day, San Mateo reports receiving ballots equal to 70 percent of its 2014 primary voter numbers, with Nevada County at 57 percent, Napa County at 56 percent, and Madera and Sacramento counties each at 55 percent.

With ballots still being dropped off and mailed in, the final verdict on the success of the voter center model won’t be in until later this week.

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