(Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

City prepares for increase in vote-by-mail ballots

Officials with the San Francisco Department of Elections on Monday morning unveiled preliminary plans for the upcoming November U.S. presidential elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in June, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced voters throughout the state will receive vote-by-mail ballots for the Nov. 3 election in order to minimize in-person voting as the pandemic continues. However, President Donald Trump, who is running for reelection, has criticized the move, alleging possible delays within the U.S. Postal Service could lead to voter suppression.

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen called on elections department officials to lay out their plan at the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee on Monday.

“There is a lot of work ahead to make sure that people are educated and informed and supported to adjust to this new way of voting,” Ronen said. “The November election may be the most important one of our lifetimes, during this state of emergency and with the concerning rise nationally of voter suppression, especially directed at communities of color. It is more urgent than ever that we keep our democracy active, safe and secure.”

Elections department Director John Arntz said the department is currently focusing on areas like voter outreach and education, safety protocols for voters and workers at in-person voting locations, and ensuring the vote-by-mail process runs smoothly.

Arntz added that the department has been in contact with the Postal Service to try to resolve any potential issues with mailing the ballots, including providing the Postal Service with samples of the vote-by-mail packets.

“The post office, they’ve been able to run these samples through the equipment to determine that the ballot packets will run through the equipment without any issues, so there’s no delay with the mail getting to the voters or back to the department,” he said.

Arntz also said that while some ballots will be processed at City Hall, most will be processed at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium Center. A new state law will give poll workers more time to process ballots — 29 days before election day instead of the previous 10 days, and 17 days after the polls have closed. In addition to sending their ballots by mail, voters will also be able to drop ballots off at any of the 588 in-person voting locations citywide.

Arntz said typically, about 25 percent of the votes at in-person polling locations are from people dropping off vote-by-mail ballots.

“This election, we expect that number to potentially double,” he said.

So far, the department has enlisted 1,800 poll workers for the entire process, and is looking to recruit about 1,200 more, Arntz said. The Office of Racial Equity Director Shakirah Smiley implored Arntz to increase outreach, especially to voters of color and residents in areas with low voter turnouts.

“We know our electorate, particularly in California, is increasingly Black, is increasingly brown, young and multi-lingual. But we also know that folks are facing increased housing and economic insecurities,” she said. “We need to make sure we do a little extra. We can’t assume everyone has equal access to information and to voting.”

Supervisor Catherine Stefani said, “Between the pandemic’s impacts on our capacity to really facilitate in-person voting, and then, of course, the Trump Administration’s attacks on the Postal Service and voting by mail, and the fact that this could very well turn out to be the highest election turnouts in our lifetime, I know that the anxiety we feel is that we can’t afford any missteps, oversights or errors.”

San Francisco voters should start seeing their ballots arrive in the mail between Oct.5 and Oct. 9, and replacement ballots will be available through Oct. 30 for those who need them, according to Arntz. Residents have through Oct. 19 to register to receive a ballot in the mail. More information can be found at https://sfelections.sfgov.org/.

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