SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Gavin Newsom gave California counties permission on Wednesday to limit their in-person voting operations for the Nov. 3 election as protection against the spread of the coronavirus -- but only if they also offer three days of early voting, a tradeoff some local officials said could be expensive and challenging.
The decision, detailed in an executive order, came almost one month after Newsom instructed California counties to mail each of the state's 20.6 million voters an absentee ballot for the upcoming election. In doing so, he noted that voting locations would still be provided, primarily for voters with disabilities and those seeking assistance in a language other than English.
But Newsom's earlier executive order, issued May 8, didn't address where and when to set up voting sites, leaving elections officials in limbo on plans for the upcoming presidential election.
The cost to implement the latest guidelines could be substantial, exceeding the federal dollars already earmarked for election assistance during the pandemic and further straining county government budgets stretched thin by public health and safety spending.
Newsom's order offers no information on whether additional state funds will be set aside, though elections funding could be boosted in the state budget the Legislature must send to his desk by June 15.
"Expanded vote-by-mail, coupled with ample in-person voting on and before Election Day, is the best formula for maintaining the accessibility, security, and safety of our election," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a written statement.
Though some large counties, including Los Angeles, already allow several options for early voting, the majority of California's 58 counties do not. Those counties still conduct elections under traditional rules, with in-person ballots cast on Election Day at neighborhood polling places -- some of which are as small as a homeowner's garage. That could make safe physical distancing impossible in this fall's election or lead to long lines in locations with little space for a crowd.
The order issued Wednesday allows those counties to provide a fraction of their normal in-person voting locations, focusing instead on larger facilities with voting devices safely spread out. The sites could include school gymnasiums and auditoriums, though a request made last month by elections officials to require schools to participate went unanswered.
"We are committed to protecting the hard-fought right for Californians to make their voices heard this November, even in the face of a pandemic," Newsom, a Democrat, said in a written statement.
The change presents two notable challenges for counties that have no experience with early voting. First, they will have to operate locations for four consecutive days, requiring more hours on the job for some poll workers or the enlistment of additional volunteers. Many poll workers are seniors who may not participate this year given their heightened risk for COVID-19 infection. The governor's executive order on Wednesday raised the possibility of county employees being assigned to elections work.