California Eyes Turning Arenas, Businesses Into Polling Places

A Sacramento Kings game in progress at the Golden 1 Center, just blocks from California’s capitol building. (Courthouse News photo / Katie Cahill)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Adding another wrinkle to an unparalleled election, California elections officials hope to turn empty sports arenas and private businesses into polling sites come November.

While counties are required to mail ballots to registered voters as part of the state’s strategy to slow the coronavirus, they also must open ample traditional voting sites under legislation approved by lawmakers Thursday. But with less than 100 days before Election Day, over half of the state’s 58 counties warn they are struggling to secure places willing and able to accommodate socially distant voting.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. “Anybody who has a facility that may lend itself to an in-person location this November, we need your help.”

Padilla told reporters many facilities that have traditionally doubled as polling sites, like senior centers or retirement homes, won’t be available to counties due to pandemic-related public health orders. To fill the void, Padilla is encouraging counties to find creative fixes with city leaders, school districts and the private sector.

Sacramento is one of the many counties scrambling as so far it has secured just 39 physical sites, compared to the 84 it offered during the March primary. Its shortage spurred a deal between the county and the Sacramento Kings to transform the basketball team’s 17,000-seat arena into a voting center.

The parties claim the deal is the first-of-its-kind and will allow enough space for voters to do things like register, pick up replacement ballots or vote the traditional way. The county will have use of the arena at no cost in the 11 days leading up to Nov. 3, and the Kings will offer free parking and encourage its workers to volunteer as election staff.

Janna Haynes, county spokesperson, noted Sacramento was one of the first to offer countywide mail-in balloting and is confident it can pull off another even with the pandemic.

“I think we have proved that the hybrid model is possible, it works, it’s safe and secure and we’re proud to have piloted that program,” Haynes said. 

Newsom ordered mandatory mail ballots on May 8, claiming the state needed to quell the fears of voters and volunteers about contracting the coronavirus at polling sites. He said California’s over 20 million registered voters shouldn’t have to wade into a “concentrated dense environment to cast their vote.”

The move was criticized by President Donald Trump on Twitter and unsuccessfully challenged in court by California Republicans.

Lawmakers have since codified Newsom’s order by passing a pair of election bills, including Senate Bill 423 on Thursday which requires counties to open at least one location per 10,000 registered voters three days before Election Day. The bills also extend the length of time officials can count ballots postmarked on or before Election Day that arrive late from three days to 17 days, and require counties to offer voters a ballot-tracking system. 

State Senator Tom Umberg says the bills are intended to provide counties with uniform guidance but acknowledged they face extraordinary challenges. Aside from budgetary and public health hurdles, Umberg said Trump’s incessant criticism of voting by mail is making matters worse.

“We’ve never seen an election, we will never see an election I hope like the one we’re going to have in California in November. By the way, we are going to have an election, that’s going to happen,” Umberg, an Orange County Democrat, jabbed the president. 

Even before the pandemic, absentee voting was immensely popular in the Golden State.

According to Padilla’s March primary voter statement, 13 of 15 counties that sent every registered voter a ballot in the mail and allowed them to vote at any polling center exceeded the statewide turnout. Meanwhile 72% of the record high 9.6 million votes cast in California on Super Tuesday were by mail.

Padilla said poll workers will be required to wear masks and the sites will be properly and regularly cleaned. He said his office is not only consulting best practices with other states, but with countries like Israel and South Korea that have held elections in recent months.

“People who vote in person, bring your masks,” Padilla said.

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