Election officials in Merced and Stanislaus counties are joining those across the state implementing changes for the Nov. 3 presidential election that will eliminate traditional polling places in accordance with state legislation due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

Each active California voter will be mailed a ballot in early October, and have the option of returning their completed ballot through the mail or delivering the ballot to a designated drop box, a satellite voter assistance office or directly to their county elections office, local election officials told Mattos Newspapers.

Barbara Levey, Merced County registrar of voters, and Donna Linder, Stanislaus County registrar of voters, said about three-quarters of voters in their respective counties already vote-by-mail.

“We were already just over 75 percent of voters who were vote-by-mail,” said Levey. “That is one of the reasons that we are very confident in the process and the safeguards that are in place. It is not new. We have the capacity to do this safely and securely and accurately.”

“We have tried-and-true practices in place to protect the integrity of the vote,” agreed Linder, who noted that a number of California counties have already switched to an all-mail election format.

Still, the officials acknowledged, initial voter response to notification of the election changes was largely one of concern.

“We have had quite a bit of feedback. A lot of the feedback was that they were concerned that they had to mail their ballot back,” explained Levey. “We want to make sure that they understand that mailing is not their only option. We have drop boxes, they can return it to our offices or take it to one of the voting assistance center.”

“I think the drop boxes allow the voters to essentially take the ballot from their hand to ours,” Linder stated. “If that is something they are more comfortable with, I want to make sure that we have as many drop boxes available as possible.

“Once we explain the security features of vote-by-mail, most people are a lot happier than they were when the originally called,” Linder added.

Linder and Levey said that, in addition to the drop boxes which will be available when ballots are mailed out, staffed satellite offices/voter assistance centers will be open Oct. 31 through Election Day. Ballots may be dropped off at the centers but will not offer the ballot scanners or tabulators that voters would find at a traditional polling place.

Voters may also turn to the centers to replace lost or damaged ballots and other services.

Levey said a voter assistance center will be located in Gustine at the Al Goman Center, and a ballot drop box will be established at Gustine City Hall.

Linder said Stanislaus County officials are still finalizing the locations of their satellite offices and ballot drop boxes.

Ballots returned by mail must be postmarked no later than Election Day and will be accepted and processed if received up to 17 days after Election Day, Levey explained.

Both elections officials, however, recommend that voters not wait until the last minute to mail ballots.

A news release issued by her office stated that the Postal Services is advising that voters should deposit their ballots in the mail no later than Oct. 27 to ensure ballots are delivered in a timely manner.

Levey said the ballots will be treated as first class mail and will be postmarked, but encourages those waiting until late in the polling period to mail their ballot to walk it in to a postal branch and make sure that it is postmarked.

Each said they have been in close contact with the postal service as planning for the upcoming election progresses.

“We feel confident in their ability to get those (ballots) to us,” Levey stated.

Levey and Linder said a number of safeguards are in place to secure the voting process.

For example, they said, the signature on each ballot is checked before the envelope is opened. If there is a discrepancy or a missing signature, they said, the voter is contacted to resolve the matter.

“The mail ballot is more secure,” Levey stated. “We have the opportunity to check it first (before the ballot is processed).”

Voters can sign up to track the status of their ballot at WheresMyBallot.sos.ca.gov.

Linder and Levey each suggested that vote-by-mail may become the norm in future elections.

In addition to the increasing percentage of voters using mailed ballots, Levey reflected, “laws are pushing us that way.”

Even before the pandemic hit, Levey said, Merced County was struggling to staff polling places.

In the March primary, she said, 100 poll workers either called in at the last minute to say they were not coming in or simply didn’t show up.

“That is a heavy loss, and it happens each election,” Levey commented. “That (absenteeism in the March primary) was far more than we had experienced before.”

In Stanislaus County, Linder noted, the all-mail election has required modifications to some of the processing machines.

“It will be very difficult for us to go back to our traditional way of voting,” she commented.