WILLITS, 10/2/20 — Since the outbreak of COVID, officials and the public alike, have worried about what it might mean for voting. To that end public officials have made extensive preparations to hold elections safely in Mendocino County, to try to keep this election from resulting in a COVID surge, and to keep us in the “red tier.”
We talked with Mendocino County Assessor-Clerk-Recorder Katrina Bartolomie and Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren about just what safety precautions will be in place at the polls, and what to expect.
The first, and perhaps best precaution, has been a major push for Californians to vote by mail, and Mendonesians have heeded the call — as of this evening the county elections division of the Assessor-Clerk-Recorder’s office has received about 32,000 ballots, either by mail or in drop boxes, out of a total 53,697 registered voters (see here for full voter registration data). That’s about 59% of all registered voters, which by itself would be quite a high turn out.
On the subject of on-site COVID protection Bartolomie explained that all poll workers are required to wear a mask at all times while inside the polling station. People filing into the polling station are also required to wear a mask while inside and voting. Polling stations will have free masks on-site to hand out to anyone who forgets their mask. Polls sites will also be adhering to the same restrictions as restaurants and churches, and only allow people up to 25% capacity of the building. Finally, in between voters poll workers are expected to enter the booth and wipe down that booth with sanitizers.
Dr. Coren noted that mask use and social distancing remain all important especially in such a public event, and that voters should use hand sanitizers both before and after going into the voting booth. He added that anyone who has is in isolation or quarantine should stay away from the polls. But, “other than that, I think that the precautions from my understanding are pretty well being follow to minimize contagion and make it safe for them.”
If a voter cannot wear a mask for some reason, Bartolomie explained, they will be assisted by a poll worker in filling out their ballot outside. “If they refuse or they can’t [wear a mask] then we help them outside — like curbside voting,” said Bartolomie.
However, some polling locations are large enough that they may set aside a special separate room for people who, for whatever reason, cannot wear a mask. Still, even in this case those people are not to be allowed to enter the main polling room.
The elections office has also moved overly small polling locations to the Ukiah fairgrounds. “We’ve tried to eliminate our tiny little places,” said Bartolomie. This means that the two polls usually located at Fowler Automotive, along with the poll at the Assemblies of God Church on Barns St., the poll in the County’s main office, and the one at St. Mary’s Catholic Church have all been moved to the fairgrounds.
Poll workers are also being asked to stay home if they have any illness or symptoms. “We told all of our poll workers, we’ve had about ten of them cancel this morning, that if they’re not feeling well to not come in,” noted Bartolomie.
Each polling station has also been provided with PPE and cleaning supplies. Each station has five sneeze guards, sanitizing wipes, hospital grade sanitizer, etc.
Coren remains optimistic that voting will not lead to a significant bump in the case rate, let alone a surge, in Mendocino County. Said the public health officer, “Hopefully it will not cause a significant increase. But, if people are congested around polling places that’s going to increase the risk.”
Early voting details
Ballots have been coming into the Election Division for weeks now, and as of Monday evening the about 32,000 ballots had been received. Bartolomie noted that this was in contrast to previous years, which averaged about 9,000 early ballots.
Bartolomie also said that the new vote counting system that they’ve implemented has sped up their counting greatly, and given the head-start her office has with all the early ballots, she hopes to have the final tallies done more quickly than in years past.
The first vote tally, constituting early voting and mail-in ballots, will be released shortly after 8 p.m. when the polls close. At that point individual polling stations will begin to pack up the ballots that have been cast in person and send them off to the election office at the County of Mendocino offices on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. This means that though a huge number of votes have already been recieved, and polls close tomorrow at 8 p.m., the straggler mail-in ballots often delay the final official tally for a couple weeks.
Ballots can also continue to be dropped in drop-off slots until 8 p.m. Mail-in ballot mailed on Tuesday, so long as they are post-marked Election Day. These ballots mailed at the last minute often constitute a substantial bundle, as do mail-in ballots that voters hand deliver to polling locations.
As those ballots arrive the election workers will begin counting those same day ballots. They’ll stay at the office counting as late as they have to, to make sure that all ballots cast on election day are counted before the next morning. This is usually pretty quick for precincts in Ukiah, but ballots coming from Gualala can take quite a while to get to Ukiah, and the count is usually not done till the wee hours of the morning.
The results will be posted to the Mendocino County election’s page, and also here on The Mendocino Voice.
Asked about what she thinks about the election more generally, Bartolomie contrasted the general state of anxiety felt nationwide with the tranquil and routine nature of voting in Mendocino. Indeed this is an unusually sleepy election in Mendo, with few ballot measures and no competitive elections for the Point Arena, Fort Bragg, and Willits city councils. In the First District, where Jon Kennedy is facing Glenn McGourty, the primary saw a lopsided result with McGourty narrowly missing the outright majority necessary to win in the first round. In District 2, with Maureen Mulheren and Mari Rodin running, Rodin announced some weeks ago that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and has curtailed her public appearances since.
Said Bartolomie, “Our biggest thing is people watch TV and all the crap that’s going on in other states, and in Southern California…we’re lucky up here, we don’t have that stuff going on…I just don’t see that happening.”
COVID safety in the elections office
A reader, Anika Meri, called in to The Mendocino Voice early today and explained that she had spend about half an hour in the Assessor-Clerk-Recorder’s office, which is also the elections office, and was frustrated to see that many of the staff were not continuously wearing masks.
Meri explained that she had had an issue with the voting rolls, and found that she had been dropped from voting rolls. She cast a provisional ballot, and was required to stay in the large room while filling out her ballot. During that time she explained that she was apprehensive to see many workers not wearing masks.
The Assessor’s Office had one worker die of COVID in late August, though again, that office and the election division are housed in the same large room. Contact tracing determined that the deceased had not contracted COVID at work, and the office was thoroughly cleaned.
Asked about this Bartolomie explained that workers are not required to wear masks while at their desks, as their desks have been moved six feet apart. Indeed, they do not habitually wear masks so long as they maintain social distancing of six feet. They do, however, don the masks to approach the public at the front counter, said Bartolomie.
“If we’re at our desks we don’t have to wear them, because our desks are six feet apart.”
As she spoke on the phone for this interview Bartolomie explained that she was in counting room with another worker, but that because they were about eight feet, neither was wearing a mask.
Bartolomie added that the office has several mobile air purifying units scattered about, in additional to central air.
Public health officer comments
We also reached out to Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren, who praised the use of early voting that Mendocino citizens have so enthusiastically adopted.
“It’s good that so many people have done the absentee or early mail-in voting, that will really reduce the congestion around voting places.”
*Notes on voter registration rate in Mendocino County
As of October 19, 2020 there were 53,697 people registered to vote in Mendocino County. In this short section we breakdown what exactly that means.
According to the United State’s Census the population of Mendocino County is estimated at 86,749 as of June 1, 2019. Of that, an estimated 78.9% are over 18 years of age, giving a total adult population of 68,445.
A felony conviction does not prohibit a person from voting in California, however, people on parole are not allowed to vote until they have completed said parole, at which time their voting rights are restored.
The census does not currently ask questions of citizenship or keep a count of citizens — citizenship being a requirement for voting in most U.S. elections (though it historically was not in many states). According to the Census, 13% of the residents of Mendocino County are foreign born, or 12,277 people. Of those an unknown number are children (ineligible to vote anyway) and an unknown number are naturalized adults (now eligible to vote).
In its Report of Registration for October 19, 2020 the California Secretary of State’s office estimated the total number of eligible voters in Mendocino County (citizens over 18-years-of-age, not currently in state or federal prison or on parole for felony crimes) at 63,021 people, or 92% of adults. As of Oct. 19, 2020 there were 53,697 people registered to vote in the County of Mendocino, or 85.2% of eligible voters, and 78.45% of adults.
The following are registration numbers are from the California Secretary of State’s Reporter of Registration for October 19, 2020 for Mendocino County:
Eligible voters: 63,021
Registered Voters: 53,697
Registered Democrats: 26,286
Registered Republicans: 11,242
Registered American Independent Party: 1,945
Registered Green Party: 803
Registered voters not registered as Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Green: 13,421