Important changes are coming to next year’s election that could result in higher voter turnout for Napa County, and particularly in American Canyon.
The county’s second largest city has long been an underachiever when it comes to voter turnout and registration, compared to other local towns in the county. But Registrar of Voters John Tuteur is hoping those trends will be reversed with the implementation of a new state law.
The 2016 California Voter Choice Act mandates that all voting in future elections take place by mail, and that counties stop using polling places. States such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado have already gone the vote-by-mail-only route, according to Tuteur.
To prepare for similar changes in California, the state asked a few select counties, including Napa, Sacramento and San Mateo, to participate in a pilot project for the June 2018 primary.
Starting next June, any voter in Napa County who wishes to cast a ballot will do so by mail. The county has already been moving in this direction over the past decade, with about 90 percent of its voters choosing vote-by-mail.
Tuteur’s objective is to get the remaining 10 percent of voters who have been accustomed to using polling places to vote by mail.
That’s where the importance of American Canyon comes into play.
Countywide, nearly 80 percent of eligible citizens are registered to vote. “But in American Canyon it’s about 60 percent — it’s that bad,” said Tuteur Monday night.
Numerically, there are about 20,000 people in the county not registered to vote, but who are eligible to do so. American Canyon has about 5,000 to 6,000 of these unregistered, potential voters, said Tuteur.
“American Canyon has the lowest yield of registered voters from eligible citizens” in the county, he said.
Tuteur is hoping another important change in store for next year will encourage more eligible voters to register and cast ballots.
Along with mandatory vote-by-mail, the June primary will feature Election Day voter registration. Previously, eligible voters had to register no later than 15 days prior to an election to qualify for a ballot.
But starting in 2018, Napa County citizens will be able to walk into one of eight voting assistance centers to register all the way up to Election Day and vote in that election.
“That attacks the low turnout problem,” Tuteur said at a special election workshop held Monday evening at the American Canyon Library.
Monday’s hourlong workshop was in some ways symbolic of American Canyon’s voter turnout problem. The event was open to the public, and Tuteur said his office notified 200 people about it.
Still, the workshop was attended by only four persons — two of whom were Tuteur and his elections staffer, Xioneida Ruiz.
The other two in attendance were Fred Nisen, a voting rights attorney for Disability Rights California, and a reporter from the American Canyon Eagle.
The intent was to “give anybody the ability to learn more” about the upcoming voting changes, said Tuteur, who was hoping for more attendance at the workshop.
Tuteur’s office, known as the Napa County Elections Division, intends to inform all registered voters about the vote-by-mail changes next March with three large mailers. Two of the mailers will go to all registered voters — about 75,000 individuals — and the third mailer will be specifically for the 10,000 voters who have been using polling places.
All registered voters will receive ballots in the mail before the June 2018 primary. They will have three options for returning their completed ballots: via U.S. mail; deposit them at a secure drop box, or turn them in at a voting assistance center.
Officials intend to set up drop boxes throughout the valley. One will be located outside the Election Division located on Coombs Street in Napa. Tuteur said the drop box will be operational 28 days before the June 5 primary. It will be open 12 hours a day, including weekends, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We’re going to monitor that box” and empty it during the day, said Tuteur. addding it won’t be open at night to prevent vandalism.
Tuteur’s office will also set up eight voting assistance centers: three in Napa, and one each in American Canyon, Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga and Angwin.
The centers will offer a variety of services, aside from collecting ballots dropped off by voters. They will have special voting machines for people with disabilities that can also print duplicate ballots for any voter who loses or damages their ballot and needs a new one.
Nisen, the supervising attorney for voting rights at Disability Rights California, said for many voters with disabilities, “voting by mail is easier than going to the polling place.”
“However,” he added, “for voters who have disabilities that make it difficult for them to read or mark a paper ballot,” such as blind voters or those with dexterity disabilities, they must vote at a center with an accessible voting system, like the ICX, which Napa County intends to use.
Such a system can read and mark the ballot for the voter without them waiving their right to a secret ballot, said Nisen.
But getting to a voting assistance center to use this system can be challenging for some people with disabilities, Nisen pointed out.
“If a voter has a significant disability, a 30-minute ride to a vote might be a huge barrier to voting,” he said.
When voting was done at polling places, counties were required to have one polling place for every 1,000 voters. But under the California Voter Choice Act, from the Saturday before Election Day through Election Day, counties are required to have one vote center for every 10,000 voters, according to Nisen.
In Napa County, those living in the Lake Berryessa area are at least a 30-minute drive to the nearest vote center, said Nisen, based on the current plans being devised by Tuteur’s office.
“This is a barrier,” Nisen said.
Tuteur told Nisen at the workshop that his staff could bring an accessible voting system to a disabled voter who could not get to a voting location.
Yet another change in voting law will allow those manning voting assistance centers to accept ballots from those registered in counties other than Napa. The law gives elections officials eight days to send these ballots to their county’s election headquarters. Before, these ballots weren’t counted.
“We’ve had ballots from Alameda County” and Solano County, said Tuter. “We had one ballot last election from Riverside County. So people are traveling more” with their ballots.
In preparation for next June, Tuteur has drafted an Election Administration Plan (EAP) that “will guide our outreach efforts.” The public is welcomed to review the plan and make suggestions.
The EAP has been translated into Spanish, but Tuteur is also working on getting copies in Chinese and Tagalog, the latter being an important translation for many Filipino residents in American Canyon.
The current draft of the EAP is available online at www.countyofnapa.org/ElectionDivision.
People can submit comments on the EAP draft until until Sept. 5.