Goodbye polling place, hello mailbox

Ballot drop-off box outside the Elections Office Some San Mateo County residents may have received a surprise in their mailbox over these last couple of days: a letter informing them that Election Day polling places in their precinct were going the way of the dinosaur, accompanied by a Vote By Mail ballot and a postage-paid envelope.

Huh?

If you got this letter, we’ll offer a full explanation here. And even if you didn’t, read on, as it’s important to know how elections are changing around you.

In order to know that we are conducting elections that comply with new standards and laws, the Elections Office conducted a review of every polling place and precinct boundary earlier this year. Some polling places were moved, some were combined with others and some were decommissioned altogether. As a result of this review, 56 of the county’s 563 precincts were designated as all mail ballot precincts.

Voters in those precincts will join more than 137,000 voters in San Mateo County who are already voluntarily registered to Vote By Mail. They represent almost 40 percent of registered voters. About half of all votes cast in the two major elections in 2006 were from Vote By Mail ballots.

California Elections Code gives chief elections officers (ours is Warren Slocum) the discretion to deem a precinct an all mail ballot precinct. Historically, all mail ballot precincts in San Mateo County have been in more rural areas or those with few registered voters. The decision was mostly one of cost-effectiveness or available space.

But the stakes for conducting our elections in accordance with the law have gotten a little bit higher. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) required that polling places and voting equipment allow disabled voters to cast their ballot secretly and independently. The act steered the county to purchase a new and fully accessible electronic voting system, Hart InterCivic’s eSlates, to replace our 14-year-old optical scan machines. Most recently, the Top-to-Bottom Review of electronic voting systems undertaken by Secretary of State Debra Bowen resulted in 36 new requirements to enhance security for the eSlates, to be effective beginning with next year’s elections. We will aim to meet them by November’s election..

Polling places and nearby parking must now be wheelchair accessible. They must be large enough to accommodate several eSlates, have sufficient electrical wiring to power them, and be equipped to meet the secretary’s mandates. Gone are the days when our neighbor’s garage – especially in many of the county’s hilly areas – makes the polling place cut.

Furthermore, precincts which serve several special and school districts and require the production of multiple types of ballots can get confusing. Unintended errors – such as being given the wrong ballot at a polling place – may result. Mailing voters their ballots in these more complicated precincts will simplify the process and keep mistakes at bay.

We know it might be a jolting change. Yours truly voted in the Lancellotti’s garage for most of her existence. But we hope you’ll find Voting By Mail more to your liking. We even provide reassurance that your ballot will be counted and not lost in the mail. Use our online Track & Confirm feature to track when your ballot was mailed to you or to confirm when your voted ballot was received by the Elections Office.

But if your heart is still set on voting in person, don’t despair:

· Drop off your voted mail ballot at your local city hall, the Elections Office at 40 Tower Road in San Mateo, or the first floor of 555 County Center in Redwood City during normal business hours anytime between now and Nov. 6;

· Surrender your Vote By Mail ballot and vote on an eSlate at the Elections Office or the first floor of 555 County Center during normal business hours anytime between now and Nov. 6; or

· Drop off your voted mail ballot at any polling place in San Mateo County between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day. Find polling places online here.

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