Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus Senior Program Coordiantor Adria Orr (left) and staff attorney Julia Marks hold up a sign promoting a poll watching service meant to protect voters in the upcoming 2020 general election. The Asian Americans Advancing Justice poll watching program has organized more than 300 volunteers through 800 voting locations in 13 counties. Credit: Pete Rosos

West Oakland resident Benny Thompson is adamant about voting in person this year, even if it means suiting up with double masks. He’s been paying attention to news of voter suppression across the country and wants to make sure his vote is counted.

“I’m concerned about the Postal Service,” said Thompson. “I’ve had mail lost and this is a time when mail is going to be lost intentionally, potentially. If I vote in person, I know my vote’s getting in.”

Allen Hoeltje, a longtime West Oakland resident and a software developer, recently posted a question on a Nextdoor forum asking whether there will be regular polling places this year due to the pandemic. “With the election one month away, I still have no idea where I will be able to vote in person,” he wrote.

The Oaklandside investigated complaints about the postal service in the Bay Area recently and found, for the most part, that our region’s mail carriers have what they need to deliver people’s ballots on time. Even so, many are opting this year to vote in person. But election officials have made big changes to the in-person voting process for the 2020 election, and word hasn’t fully gotten around yet.

Confusion is widespread, and voter education groups say there’s still lots of work to do to inform people about where and how they can vote in person. The Oaklandside interviewed election officials, leaders of voter mobilization groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and voters about how in-person voting is being organized this year.

Elaine Ginnold, the former Marin County Registrar and lead coordinator for the Bay Area chapter of the League of Women Voters, which has trained almost 40 local groups on election procedures, says people shouldn’t fall back on old habits this year.

“A lot of people don’t pay attention until it’s Election Day and they get up out of bed and think, ‘Oh, I’m just going to go to my polling place and vote.’ You know, that’s not going to work this time,” she said.

During outreach meetings with other organizations like the Oakland Housing Authority and Meals on Wheels, Ginnold has talked to people who say they’re dead set on voting in person because they don’t trust the USPS with their ballot. She pushes back, asking people to consider whether they’ve absorbed that way of thinking from groups aiming to suppress voter turnout. It’s also important to note that people who want to avoid mailing in their vote can use ballot drop boxes, which are operated by the county registrar’s office.

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The biggest change to in-person voting this year is that there won’t be polling places set up in precincts. Because of the pandemic, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis, under the direction of Governor Gavin Newsom and the Secretary of State, decided to consolidate the county’s 820 individually-assigned small “polling places” into 100 large “voting centers” where anyone can vote. These voting centers will be open Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. The change was implemented to encourage residents to vote by mail and to discourage crowds.

But according to Ginnold, the California Secretary of State’s Official Voter Information Guide still mentions “polling places” more often than “vote centers.” The long-time government official said this type of unintentionally misleading communication could “lull” voters into thinking nothing has changed. 

“Here in Alameda County, they read that and don’t see anything that’s going to be different about their election,” Ginnold says. “You have to be really direct: ‘There will be no polling places.’ That gets people’s attention.”

According to the Secretary of State’s office, its voting guide, which is printed to use across all 58 California counties, includes the term “polling places” because counties have the option to either move to the voting center model, as Alameda County has done, or stick to their pre-COVID polling places while putting new safety measures in place. San Francisco County, for example, is keeping its 588 polling places open

Early voting, drive-through voting, walk-in voting

On October 5, the first day of early voting for the Nov. 3 election, Dupuis, the county registrar, saw to it that all of his staff at the Réne C. Davidson Courthouse at 1225 Fallon Street, the county’s sole early voting site, followed the exact orders they’d worked on for months. Over 100 people showed up in-person that day to vote, and every business day since, Dupuis told us, has been busy. 

“We have people currently out in front of the office getting their ballots and voting,” Dupuis said in an interview.

The courthouse is the only location where people can vote in-person until October 31, when 100 other locations will open up across the county for four full days, including Election Day.

State officials determined there should be one voting location for every 10,000 voters, so based on Alameda County’s voter roll of over 900,000 at the time, and the growing interest in this particular election, Dupuis said he “erred on the safe side” and searched for 100 locations. He predicts the county might count up to a million eligible voters by November 3.  

Since there will be fewer places to vote in person, each site needs to meet specific parameters that will allow more people to cast a ballot while maintaining safe distances and adhering to other coronavirus safety measures. The first requirement was size. Voting centers are at least 2,500 square feet—about four times bigger than the average 600-square-feet of past polling sites, which included schools and libraries and even some living rooms and garages. Among the biggest voting centers will be the Oakland Coliseum in East Oakland, where voters can drive or walk in from 66th Avenue to cast a ballot

The second requirement was accessibility. Each location will have nearby access to parking, public transportation, and space for drive-through and curbside voting. 

“If you filled your ballot at home, you can drive up to any of the locations and we’ll have a drive-through where you can hand us the ballots and we’ll drop it into the ballot box. You can see us do that, and we’ll give you your ‘I voted’ sticker. You never have to leave your car,” Dupuis said. 

Curbside voting will work a lot like 1950s-era drive-in diners: An attendant wearing a mask and gloves walks to the voter’s car, gets their information, goes back to the voting center to retrieve their ballot. People can vote inside their car, like their own personal booth, and once finished, Dupuis said, voters will be asked to drive to a station where they hand their ballot out the window to poll workers.

If people want to actually walk inside a voting center, they have two options. The first is to show up, get in line at least six feet apart, and wait until it’s their turn to vote. Depending on the turnout, the line might be long. 

Liz Suk, the political director of Oakland Rising, a progressive voter mobilization and education organization, recommends bringing a book, something warm, and some food in case this happens. 

The second option relies on tech: If people don’t want to wait in line, they can sign up with a “greeter” through their phone and will receive a text when it’s their turn to vote. That way, they can wait at a safe distance away from everyone in line, or in their car if they prefer.  

Once inside a voting center, Dupuis says each location has been outfitted with more booths and voting machines than usual. Depending on the location, there will be up to 10 voting booths and 4 touchscreen ballot-marking devices. 

As for how many people will be allowed inside, Dupuis estimates there will only be about 10 to 12 people at a time. Voters will be required to wear a mask at each location and workers will have extras on hand, as well as hand sanitizer.

Liz Suk, the political director of Oakland Rising, said her group has been pleasantly surprised to hear that many voters plan on voting by mail this election. Credit: Pete Rosos

What rights do voters have when voting in-person?

With all the added fears about voter intimidation and suppression this year, it’s important to know your rights. We spoke to Julia Marks, a staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, a legal and civil rights organization that is training lawyers in Northern California to serve as poll watchers.

According to Marks, one set of laws that have to be frequently defended pertain to language access. Voters have the right to translated ballots or translated reference materials for some languages and at certain voting locations. Counties are also required to try to recruit bilingual poll workers, but not all voting locations have bilingual staff or translated ballots, and not all languages are covered by these laws. These barriers may help contribute to lower voting rates for Asian and Latino communities.

“A significant amount of [this problem] is historical discrimination. These communities aren’t fully represented in our electoral process,” Marks told us. 

This year, more than ever, these communities are likely to suffer from a lack of access to their native language. Marks said the confusion around the pandemic will likely lead to non-English speaking people not knowing they can receive ballots by mail or being told where in-person voting centers are located. 

What are the other rights voters have if they choose to vote in-person? Marks said the most important are the following:

  • The right to have up to two people assist them if they can’t vote by themselves, the two main reasons being having a disability or facing language barriers. The assistants can come into the voting booth with the voter to help them 
  • The right to privacy. No one can go into the voting booth with a voter unless they have verbal or written permission. “This right also extends to not being able to take photos in voting places,” said Marks. But you can use your smartphone to refer to your notes. (Private ballot selfies are also allowed!)
  • The right to cast their ballot even if they didn’t make it into the vote center before it closes. “If you’re in line, that’s enough. You have to stay in line until you can cast your ballot,” Marks says. This means that a voting location must stay open for hours after it’s scheduled to close, if need be, as long as people are still in line
  • The right to vote safely. As noted above, the registrar will be providing COVID safety gear at every location and workers will maintain social distancing up to six feet. If the voting location is not observing this rule, they are breaking the law. Voters can report problems to the county registrar or Secretary of State
  • The right to same-day voter registration. “Even if someone has never registered to vote, they can show up on Election Day or during the three early-voting days and register,” Marks says. A same-day voter can fill out their registration and submit their ballot in a special envelope. It won’t be counted until the county elections office confirms the registration
  • The right to ask for a new ballot if you’ve made a mistake 
  • The right to ask workers questions that will help you cast your vote

Overall, given the realities of COVID-19, many of the voting experts we spoke with recommend people vote by mail or by using ballot drop boxes.

Voter intimidation outside voting centers is unlikely in Oakland

Deleign Thompson, chairperson for the Oakland League of Women Voters, doesn’t believe there will attempts at voter intimidation in Oakland, but is more worried about the risks associated with catching COVID-19. Credit: Pete Rosos

“The idea of armed militias ‘protecting polls’ in places is terrifying to me. That’s something that really scares me in terms of in-person voting,” Thompson, the West Oakland voter, told us. 

Suk of Oakland Rising said far-right extremists have tried to stir up fears around voting, but that it likely won’t result in people menacingly brandishing weapons at polls in the Bay Area.

“A lot of folks in Oakland aren’t that scared because they know their community and know how their community takes care of each other,” said Suk. “You know, no one’s gonna roll up in here and try to intimidate folks.”

Even so, concerns about voter intimidation are heightened this year because of statements by Donald Trump encouraging his followers to challenge the vote. In this context, it’s important to know that everyone has a right to observe the integrity of the voting process to make sure it’s fair. But they can’t interfere with anyone’s right to vote.

Electioneering, defined as advocating for or against any person or measure on the ballot, or making other political statements, is prohibited within 100 feet of voting centers and is a felony under state Elections Code § 18370. Electioneering includes talking, signaling, or otherwise expressing a campaign message in any way to voters about any positions on any campaigns or ballot measures. 

According to Marks, the civil rights attorney, this includes soliciting a vote or speaking to a voter on the subject of marking their ballot, placing a sign relating to voters’ qualifications near a voting center, or speaking to a voter about whether they’re eligible to vote.

Electioneering laws also apply to secure ballot drop boxes. Even if people just want to cheer on voters in a non-partisan way, Marks said, they can’t do it “in a way that harasses or intimidates them—which is fairly subjective.”

Election observers, people who go inside voting areas to watch the voting process, have to follow these and other rules. Dupuis said the county will allow about one or two observers for 15 minutes at a time inside a voting center. Observers asked to step outside need to get in line if they want to observe again. 

“They can’t disturb the voters. They can’t get into the voter space. They can’t disturb the election workers as they’re doing their business,” Dupuis said. 

If, for some reason, a poll watcher escalates a situation and becomes rowdy or worse, election workers are trained to explain the process to them, and if necessary, the designated captain of the center will call the police or sheriff. 

Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has been in weekly contact with local and federal security forces to ensure the election goes smoothly. For individual voting centers, police in each city are responsible for responding to disturbances, but the sheriff’s office will intervene if necessary. 

“We will have a specialized team of individuals just in case,” Kelly told us in an interview. “We have to be mindful of our presence. We don’t want to deter people from voting or to intimidate people,” added Kelly. “Historically, there’s been no issues during Election Day, but we have a plan in place for any type of scenario.”

Other things observers are not allowed to do, according to the Secretary of State, include: 

  • Physically handle any voting materials or equipment without the express permission of the elections official 
  • Move or rearrange tables, chairs, or voting booths at the polling place or central counting facility
  • Sit at the official worktables or view confidential voter information on any computer terminal or document 
  • Display any campaign material or wear campaign badges, buttons or apparel
  • Use cellular phones, pagers, or two-way radios inside the polling place 
  • Talk to or attempt to stop poll workers or the central counting site workers while they are processing ballots
  • Eat or drink in a polling place or the central counting site
  • Prevent other observers from observing materials or a process
  • Enter secure areas without the express permission of the elections official 

Under no circumstances are poll watchers, or anyone else, allowed to challenge or intimidate voters, or vandalize a polling site.

According to state law, only “a member of a precinct board or other official responsible for the conduct of the election,” can challenge or question any voter “concerning the voter’s qualifications to vote.” Anyone who violates this can face up to a year in county jail or state prison. 

Intimidating voters through “any force, violence, or tactic of coercion” is also a felony punishable with a jail or prison sentence. 

Vandalism includes any act to “remove or destroy any of the supplies in the voting booths, or remove, or deface the voter instructions or voter index, or remove, tear down, or deface the signs identifying the location of a Vote Center or identifying areas within 100 feet of a Vote Center,” and is a misdemeanor.

Local outreach groups are seeing positive signs of voter engagement

Even with all the fear and uncertainty about the integrity of this year’s election, local organizations are pushing forward with optimism. 

Shomari Carter, the Executive Director of OCCUR, an Oakland-based public policy non-profit serving communities of color, said locals have learned from past problems with the elections process and were ready this time to reach out to voters and inform them of changes. 

“The last voting cycle, we actually had something that happened where a lot of poll centers were changed,” said Shomari, referring to a decision by the county to move polling centers to new locations. “And there was a lot of conversation and confusion about where and how to vote, so I think that prepped a lot of people in terms of voting by mail and just being able to find new polling stations.”

Carter also said that voters he’s spoken with aren’t put off by mail-in voting. Instead, they have told him they want to vote as soon as possible, and mail-in voting makes that easier. What’s more, he said, people’s desire to vote has increased their willingness to engage with other civic duties.

Suk, of Oakland Rising, said her group has been pleasantly surprised that in some Oakland districts, up to 80% of people registered to vote are telling them they will be doing so by mail. But she said their door-to-door and text messaging outreach, which reaches up to 60,000 people, including the formerly incarcerated, has revealed some fear around disenfranchisement. People are worried about mail-in ballots getting lost, and they’re worried about problems that could arise with in-person voting. 

“In general, people understand to vote early, but we are concerned about that 30% of people who don’t. So, we tell folks, ‘If you’re being turned away, give us a call,’” she said. 

Despite being 68 years old and in the key group more likely to suffer from COVID-19, Hoeltje, the West Oakland resident, said he has no fear about voting in person because he’s informed about the virus and is simply used to voting that way. 

“I kind like the tradition of going on the first Tuesday of November,” he said.

Correction: California Elections Code Section 14025-14032 does not govern language access requirements and voters do not have the right to vote in any language of their choice. Smartphones are allowed inside voting centers for not taking and private ballot selfies, but no photos of other voters or poll workers are allowed.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.