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SLO County supervisors reject new voting system for 2020 election

Randol White/KCBX News

San Luis Obispo County officials chose this week not to switch to a new voting system for the 2020 election, created by the state legislature aiming to modernize voting in California. The county’s election official presented options, and community members shared their support, but the price tag may have swayed supervisors from changing, for now.

Senate Bill 450, also known as the Voter's Choice Act, passed in 2016. It gave counties the option to mail ballots to all registered voters and replace polling places with “vote centers.” There would be fewer vote centers than polling places, but the vote centers would open for 10 days prior to Election Day, instead of only being open on the day itself.

Five counties tried out the system in 2018, and voting numbers were higher. But as San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong told the San Luis Obispo County board of supervisors Tuesday, those numbers might not be totally representative of the new system.

“You know, last year's election was big by all accounts,” Gong said. “I think statewide almost every county showed an increase.”

Postage and staffing the centers would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the state would chip in, counties would have to pay a big chunk. Many at Tuesday’s meeting, like Oceano caregiver Allene Villa, thought it would be worth it.

“I’ve heard money, money, money being the issue," Villa said. "But if it increases voter participation even just one percent in our county, it’s worth the effort."

Gong presented the board with a slimmed-down version of the new voting system that may be easier to implement, and puts the price closer to $164,000. Not everyone—like Supervisor Lynn Compton—thought even the reduced-cost alternative would benefit the county, which typically has high voter turnout.

“I don’t disagree with the comments that are made that if you are elderly, it’s hard to get to the polls,” Compton said. “If you are disabled, it’s hard to get to the polls. Certainly you have empathy for those people. But you can vote by mail. But for some people you’re taking away a choice from someone like me who likes to poll vote.”

Not everyone agrees that would be the case. Rosemary Wren, chair of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Party, contacted KCBX on Thursday to dispute Compton’s claim.

“No one is taking away that choice,” said Wren. “Her options of where she can actually exercise that choice may be redistributed, but that choice has not been taken away from her and it won’t be taken away from any voters in California under SB 450."

While participation in SB 450 is voluntary, Wren said she believes the new voting method is the way of the future, and could help alleviate voting burdens for people with children or care for the elderly.

While the board majority rejected switching to an all vote-by-mail system, the supervisors did pass a measure saying they’d like to reconsider the change at a later date.