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SLO County to revert to 'traditional' election model following supervisor vote

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San Luis Obispo County is ditching the election model it used for last November's presidential election amid COVID-19 and reverting to its old model going forward, following a contentious, late-hour 3-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors on May 4.

ELECTION DEBATE The SLO County Board of Supervisors voted on May 4 to use an older election model for future contests. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • ELECTION DEBATE The SLO County Board of Supervisors voted on May 4 to use an older election model for future contests.

The decision—which came at 11:30 p.m. after nearly four hours of public comment—means that polling places for future SLO County elections will be open only on Election Day, and mail-in ballots will be delivered only to those who request them, unless state law requires otherwise.

Critics blasted the decision as being akin to restricting ballot box access, after last November's election drew record turnout under a model that required polling places to open four days before Election Day and counties to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

"I will not be going backwards into the future," 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said, before dissenting in the vote.

The supervisors voted along partisan lines—with conservative Supervisors John Peschong (1st District), Lynn Compton (4th District) and Debbie Arnold (5th District) leading the majority.

The discussion came on the heels of a SLO County Republican Party campaign to dispute the November 2020 election, based on unsubstantiated concerns of fraud and ballot errors, and demand changes.

"There clearly is concern out there," Arnold said after public comment.

Ahead of the meeting, dozens of copies of a pre-drafted Republican Party email went to the SLO County Clerk-Recorder's Office. The emails demanded that Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong launch a forensic audit of the election because the county used the Dominion Voting Systems technology, a target of former President Donald Trump's false allegations about 2020 election fraud.

They also called for mandatory voter ID laws and "no more 100 percent vote by mail."

"I am sure during this last election, with mail-in ballots, there was fraud," Martin Scott wrote in an email to Gong. "I don't trust Dominion Voting Systems at all."

Gong wrote in response letters, and told New Times on May 5, that the county cannot legally audit the 2020 election at this time, since all ballots must remain unopened and unaltered for 22 months following an election per state law. No recounts were requested for the election, either, he said.

Gong added that his office has not received any substantiated complaints, concerns, or evidence of irregularities or fraud in the 2020 election. He called the election "a great success despite the COVID-19 pandemic" and said the conspiracy theories about the Dominion system, used by 40 counties in California, were "all unfounded."

"It's a good system. We selected it in 2018," Gong said.

Complaints and allegations about the 2020 election escalated to a point where one speaker on May 4 accused Gong of belonging to the Chinese Communist Party. One email—part of the string of Republican Party-drafted letters—also told Gong in a personalized note: "We The People are coming for your corrupt head."

Gong, who's the first Asian American to ever be elected to office in SLO County, called the racist comment and threat "quite disturbing."

"It's truly unfortunate," he said. "I wanted to think the community looked beyond the color of one's skin, ... but remarks like that put that thought in question, about what is the underlying current."

In the supervisors' discussion about election models, Peschong, Compton, and Arnold noted that SLO County does not have the power to require voter ID at the ballot box or to further restrict mail-in voting, since those are state laws. In a separate vote, they directed county staff to potentially include those issues as part of the county's state legislative platform.

Peschong said that he didn't believe election fraud occurred in SLO County, adding that county clerks across the state universally endorse the Dominion Voting System.

"Every single county clerk is saying they work very, very well and they're not concerned about it," Peschong said.

But Peschong did take issue with the November 2020 election model, saying he preferred "the traditional model" of more polling places open on Election Day, versus fewer vote centers open for four days. He said he felt the vote center model disenfranchised senior citizens who grew accustomed to the old way.

Peschong also disputed arguments that the 2020 model contributed to the record turnout, attributing it instead to that election being the "most controversial in my lifetime."

Yet, scores of local residents wanted the county to continue with the model adopted in 2020. In a recent voter survey conducted by the SLO County Clerk-Recorder's Office, 57 percent of respondents said they preferred a multi-day vote service center to an Election Day-only polling place.

"Our voting system is working well," Thomas Nickelson wrote in a public comment letter. "Our elections are safe and fair. Don't buy the Trump lie." Δ

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