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In August, as lightning strikes ignited fires around his Napa County home, Ian MacMillan escaped the flames with his wife, three kids and mother-in-law. A month later, when another wildfire roared through Northern California’s wine country, they had to flee their home again.
“It sounded like a war zone,” MacMillan, 41, said. “The fire was blazing, the winds were bad and you could hear the propane tanks going off.”
This time, their house didn’t make it.
MacMillan spent the next few weeks attending to urgent matters, like finding a place to live. Now that he and his family are temporarily settled, however, he is planning to pick up his ballot at the post office where his mail is being held. “I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it’s there,” he said.
California has tried to make it easier for residents to vote during the pandemic by sending a vote-by-mail ballot to every registered voter. But for MacMillan and thousands of others who have lost their homes to wildfires this year, mail-in voting poses a unique set of challenges.
“Ballots, in some cases, were mailed when the fire was going on and may have been destroyed in their mailbox or in their homes,” said John Tuteur, the Napa County Registrar of Voters.
In other cases, ballots may still be held at local post offices, but by law cannot be forwarded to a new address, even at the voter’s request.
So getting a ballot to voters requires a bit of effort on both ends. Counties are taking additional steps this year to inform voters about their options.
For the first time, the California Secretary of State and both the Napa and Sonoma County registrars have added sections to their websites for voters displaced by disasters. The counties created their pages in September following the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which destroyed 1,491 structures, and just before the Glass Fire that consumed 1,555 structures, including MacMillan’s home.
In Shasta County, the Zogg Fire ignited on the same day as the Glass Fire and ultimately destroyed 204 structures. Cathy Darling Allen, the Shasta County Registrar of Voters, said her office plans to call registered voters who may have been affected by the wildfires and haven’t voted yet.
“We are also going to, probably a week before the election, go through our voter history file,” Allen said. “We probably will just do phone calls at that point to try and find folks and make sure they know what their options are.”
But most voters don’t realize there’s something easy they can do: request a replacement ballot.
According to Tuteur, you don’t have to be a wildfire refugee to obtain a replacement ballot. Legitimate reasons can include, “I left it at home, my dog ate it, [or] the cat urinated on it,” he said.
And these replacement ballots can be mailed outside of voters’ registered counties, and even out of state, as long as they’re requested by October 27.
Voting in person is also still an option through Election Day, either at polling places or at each county’s elections office. Voters can also register or request a replacement ballot at their county’s elections office.
“But to vote safe and vote early, we’re urging people to get a second ballot,” Tuteur said. “With the pandemic, we’re trying to avoid overcrowding or long lines at our polling places.”
Ultimately, most people like MacMillan are hoping their ballot is being held at their post office. But many people displaced by wildfires are scattered to trailers, shelters, hotels and relatives’ homes. Some don’t have cars to pick up their mail at the post office. And some post offices were in fire evacuation zones and closed for several days.
“It seems like kind of a flawed system,” said Sean Piccirilli, who has been living in a trailer in the parking lot of his uncle’s business since his house burned down in the Glass Fire.
When Piccirilli contacted the post office about his ballot, he said, “They seemed pretty flustered about the whole thing because it’s not just one person asking them. It’s every other person in line.”
Piccirilli had never voted in California before. He’d just moved from Oregon in March when the pandemic hit, and said he’s felt isolated ever since. Now, his home is gone too.
“Everything that I’ve collected in my 27 years on this planet, everything that meant something to me, is gone,” he said.
Still, the experience only made him more committed to voting.
“I have a backpack of clothes and a picture of my dog that has passed away,” he said. “What else do I have? Well, I have my voice and I have the things that I care about and I want to express them.”
Isabella Bloom and Marco Torrez are reporters at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Votebeat is a national media collaboration about the administration and integrity of, and issues regarding, the unprecedented 2020 election. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.