Even with a global pandemic and raging wildfires to distract, you're probably keenly aware that we are just weeks away from Election Day, which will decide what's possibly the most heated — and some would argue consequential — presidential races in recent memory.
Humboldt County voters will also face a smattering of other decisions, including nine local ballot measures about everything from whether Eureka should move to a ranked choice voting system and whether Arcata should impose a parcel tax to fund park maintenance to whether a special tax should be imposed to raise funds for the Arcata Fire Protection District and whether the county should be authorized to obtain state and federal funds to develop low-income housing. In addition, there's a runoff election for a seat on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, 14 school board races to follow, more than two dozen candidates vying for seats spread across four special districts and 38 candidates racing for seats on one of of seven city councils. It's a lot.
But before voters even get to making the choices that will shape the future, they first will have to wrap their heads around what will be a very different Election Day — or election days — with California shifting to a universal vote-by-mail system in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Here's what you need to know to ensure your vote is counted.
If you're not registered to vote, don't stress — there's still time. In fact, in California you can register right up to and even on Election Day (Nov. 3). But in order to get your vote-by-mail ballot, avoid having to cast a provisional ballot and ensure your votes will be in the election night tallies (more on all of that later), you'll have to register by Oct. 19. If you're uncertain of your registration status, you can check it by visiting www.co.humboldt.ca.us/election/voter-status. To register, visit www.registertovote.ca.gov.
As of July 3, 80,250 people — 77 percent of those eligible to cast a ballot — were registered to vote in Humboldt County. About 47 percent of those are registered Democrats, with another 24 percent identifying as Republicans, 22 percent having registered with no party preference, 3 percent American Independents, 2 percent Green partiers and 1 percent Libertarians, according to the most recent registration report from the California Secretary of State's Office.
Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Kelly Sanders said the actual registration tally currently stands at 82,014, an increase of nearly 3,000 voters from the presidential primary in March. Interestingly, though, that's still fewer voters than the 82,917 who were registered for the November presidential election in 2016. As of the July report, the Republican Party had lost 543 local voters since 2016, while the Democratic Party had shed 58 locals. The biggest changes, however, were seen in local support for the Green Party — which had dropped 785 voters, or nearly 40 percent of its local membership — and no-party preference voters, who numbered nearly 2,000 fewer than four years ago.
Ballots in the mail
Every registered voter in California is slated to receive a vote-by-mail ballot this year in an election that promises to look quite different than all its predecessors. Sanders said ballots will be mailed to "all active" voters Oct. 5 and should land in local mailboxes later that week. She clarified that nobody has been removed from local rolls for failing to vote and that someone's status is only switched to "inactive" if materials mailed from the elections office to them are returned as undeliverable.
Sanders encouraged locals to use those vote-by-mail ballots, and to use them early to help ensure they're included in the tally on Election Night. (Only vote-by-mail ballots received by the Elections Office prior to Election Day are included in that tally, with others having to go through a verification process that generally leads to their counting being delayed by a week or so.)
"We would really encourage people to vote their vote-by-mail ballots," Sanders said. "We want people to vote safely from home. We want to minimize [COVID-19] exposure for our voters and our election workers, and we want to reduce lines."
What to do with those ballots
Once you've filled out your vote-by-mail ballot, you have options on how to get it back to the Elections Office. They'll come with pre-paid postage, so one option is just putting it in the mail. Sanders said all ballots postmarked up to and on Election Day and received by the Humboldt County Elections Office by Nov. 20 will be considered valid and counted.
Voters can also hand-deliver ballots to the Elections Office — 2426 Sixth St. in Eureka — which is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., or to one of the 13 voter assistance centers and "pop-up locations" that will open throughout the county (more on those below).
Sanders said the county will also be setting up secure ballot drop-off boxes throughout the county.
"We've partnered with local businesses, mostly grocery stores and hardware stores, because they're open seven days a week for long hours," she said.
Sanders said the boxes will be secure and installed directly into concrete fixtures, with24-hour availability at various locations — including all Ray's Food Places, Murphy's Markets, ShopSmart in Redway and outside the Elections Office, among others. She said election workers will make the rounds in pairs on a set schedule to collect ballots from the boxes and securely deliver them back to the Elections Office.
But again, Sanders urged voters to get their ballots in as early as possible, no matter the method.
"I would really encourage people to drop their ballots off early if they don't want to mail them," she said. "If they wait until Election Day to drop them off, those ballots will be processed after the election."
And those who cannot physically put their ballot in the mail themselves or deliver it in person have the option of designating someone else to do so, which requires both people signing an affidavit on the ballot envelope.
What if you need a new ballot?
Did you spill coffee on your ballot, lose it or maybe just come to regret a certain vote before turning it in? Fret not, your vote is not lost. If a voter needs a new ballot early in the process — before Oct. 19 — they can simply write "spoiled" across the front, check the box indicating they would like a new vote-by-mail ballot and send it back to the Elections Office. There's also the option of physically returning it to the Elections Office and receiving a new one, or bringing it to one of those aforementioned voter assistance centers (again, more on that below).
Can I vote in person?
Yes. Yes, you can. But there will be far fewer options than during a non-pandemic election, when the county typically opens 50 or so polling locations. This year, Sanders said the county will staff nine voter assistance centers that will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day. These will be located at: McKinleyville Middle School, Azalea Hall in McKinleyville, Mad River Rapids RV Park in Arcata, the Arcata Community Center, the Eureka Pentecostal Church, the Humboldt County Elections Office, the Eureka Veterans Memorial Building, College of the Redwoods and the Fortuna Veterans Memorial Building. Additionally, pop-up locations will be open on Election Day only from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Hoopa Neighborhood Facility, the Willow Creek Community Services District, the Humboldt County Fairgrounds and SoHum Health's campus on Sprowel Creek Road in Garberville.
Those wishing to cast a normal precinct ballot can do so at any of these locations, though they should bring their unused vote by mail ballot as proof they haven't voted. (Otherwise, Sanders said they will have to wait while a poll worker calls into a hotline to verify that the voter has not already submitted a vote-by-mail ballot, which could take a while and lead to longer lines and more crowding, all of which officials are working to avoid.)
For those who do need to vote or drop off a ballot in person at a pop-up location or voter assistance center, Sanders said there will be plenty of protocols in place as her staff is working closely with state officials to make the process as safe as possible. Poll workers will be outfitted with gloves, masks, face shields, sanitizers and disinfectants, she said. Voting booths and lines will be physically distanced and all equipment, pens and counters will be sanitized between voters. Voters who show up without a mask will be given one, she said, and anyone refusing to wear one — or just uncomfortable entering the premises — can have a poll worker bring a ballot to their car.
But all of this will be time-consuming, Sanders warned, which is why she's urging everyone to use their vote-by-mail ballots and vote early, if possible.
I lost my ballot and can't make it to a voter center, what do I do?
If wildfires have pushed you from your home, you're homebound and your ballot never came or for some other reason don't have access to a ballot, fret not. California has long made remote accessible vote-by-mail ballots available to military personnel stationed overseas and, in this pandemic year, they're an option for everyone. You can go to the county elections website and access your ballot materials electronically, downloading them through a secure portal, print them out and mail them back to the Elections Office. (Sanders warned these ballots go through added layers of scrutiny to ensure nobody has doubled voted.)
Is it all secure?
Sanders thinks so. She said California protocols are very secure and make sure none of the optical scan or voting machines are connected to the internet — protecting them from hacking — and there's a paper trail of every vote cast. And because ballots are printed locally, she said they are delivered directly from a secure printing facility to the Elections Office, then taken to the Post Office. All ballot containers and equipment have tamper-proof seals with strict chain of custody protocols.
And when it comes to vote-by-mail ballots, Sanders said they go through more scrutiny than precinct ballots when it comes to checking signatures and bar codes.
"I think we have a very secure voting system with a lot of protocols in place," she said. "I feel very comfortable about our voting security."
And, she reminded, there is an automatic manual re-count of at least 1 percent of the votes cast in each race on every local ballot and the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project scans an image of each ballot cast in the race and makes them available to the public, along with open-source tabulating software, to catch any irregularities.
To provide another layer of transparency, Sanders said there are plans for Access Humboldt to live stream the 1-percent recount this year, too.
When will we know the results?
The Elections Office has 30 days to complete vote counting under California law, so results should be final by Dec. 3. But how good a handle everyone will have on the results on Election Night is ultimately up to voters, Sanders said. If most ballots come in prior to Election Day, she said the law allows elections staff to open them up, verify signatures and get them in stacks ready for optical scan machines to count on Election Day so they can be included in the tallies that night along with precinct ballots cast that day. But any vote-by-mail ballots that show up on or after Election Day, or provisional ballots cast at the polls, would add to the number that remain uncounted initially, leaving the results less certain and more likely to shift.
Pandemic aside, Sanders said the trend in recent years indicates candidates may be in for a long wait to learn their fates.
"The trend is more and more people like to hold onto their ballots and deliver them on Election Day," she said. That, Sanders said, is a trend she hopes to see reversed this year in an effort to keep everyone healthy and get the most complete results possible posted on election night.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the
Journal's news editor. Reach him at
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