For decades, voters on election day went to their respective polling places–roughly 160 in Santa Cruz County–where they would be handed a ballot for the candidates and races specific to their districts.
It was a time-honored tradition, and–for one day–a community gathering spot, with many lining up to vote and then exiting proudly bearing the “I Voted” stickers, as reporters waited outside to gather exit polls and build election day stories.
But with a wide majority of people now opting to vote by mail–and with Santa Cruz County election officials now mailing ballots to all its roughly 167,000 registered voters–those days are gone.
Even before the pandemic pushed more facets of life into remote meetings and other impersonal interactions, some 78% of county voters were opting for a mail-in ballot, says Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Weber.
Still, even though the so-called Polling Place Model has largely become an anachronism, county election officials have crafted one they say offers far more ways–and places–to cast one’s ballot.
Under the Vote Center Model, voters can visit one of many polling places, regardless of where they live within the county.
“There are more days, and more ways that a person can obtain a ballot and vote, but there are less locations, ” Weber says. “Anybody can go anywhere.”
For the upcoming 2024 primary elections, the election offices in the Watsonville and the Santa Cruz County government buildings open up on Feb. 5, where voters can cast a ballot or drop theirs off. They can also register to vote or, if they want to opt for a different presidential candidate than what their primary ballot offers–vote for the one they want.
On Feb. 24, three more polling places will open, and 13 open on March 2. An additional two places open on election day, for a total of 26.
Weber says the shift to mail-in ballots has also changed the way election officials receive and tally them. Each one has a tab that must be removed to allow them to check the signature against previous ones, she says.
Additionally, with increasing numbers of races and initiatives appearing on the ballots, voters tend to hold onto them longer. That means a last-minute crush, Weber says.
“We will have more people return their vote-by-mail ballots on election day than we will of the sum total we got in the whole 28 days prior to that,” she says.
Counties statewide revamped their voting system in 2020 by replacing most paper ballots at the in-person sites with touch-screen voting computers after California in 2015 updated its California Voting System Standards.
What is certain, Weber says, is that the new system is here to stay. She does not foresee a return of the neighborhood polling place.
“Mail-in ballots are here for the long-haul,” she says. “I don’t see that it’s going to go away.”
Check out our 2024 primary election guide here
For a full list of voting locations, visit bit.ly/3OamwFl