A Voter’s Guide to the Elections, Conversing with Tommy Gong, San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder

In case you hadn’t noticed, the 2020 election season is flying down the home stretch. While some voters are eagerly awaiting their mail-in ballots (and may have already received them), others say they’ll wait to vote in-person. “We want our ‘I Voted’ stickers,” is actually a common theme!

But, for a variety of reasons, this go ‘round has others not so enthusiastic. Slightly outpacing the ‘I’m sitting this one out crowd is a voter block that, judging from social media posts, appears to be confused, concerned, or cold about the process. Certainly, the information surrounding one of this century’s most heated races for seats at all levels seems like a quagmire. But rest assured, the good news is that at the local SLO County level and in most communities across the nation, your vote will be safe, tallied—and could truly make a difference.

Tommy Gong, San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder basically says, “bring it on!” He and his staff are ultra-prepared, energized, educated, and mobilized to ensure all voters enjoy ease and safety in casting their ballots in uncertain times encompassing a national pandemic, potential power outages, cybersecurity issues, and changes to the postal system in what would otherwise be a ‘typical’ election.

“Any of these things could be pressing down on voters; things that have never happened in the past,” Gong said. “But the world is changing, and we are prepared to meet those challenges, particularly that we are expecting the highest level of voter turnout ever this year.” Indeed, of the 178,000 registered voters in SLO County, a record turnout of 83 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2016. “We’re anticipating—and ready for—more than that this November,” Gong said, demonstrating the confidence and ability that got him elected to his position in 2014, after having served as second-in-command under former SLO County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald since 2005.

In addition to preparing for higher voter turnout, Gong said the coronavirus pandemic has compelled his office to reconfigure polling places, workspaces, and voter-friendly amenities such as adding a four-day voting in-person schedule and curbside voting for those unable to leave their cars. His office is also looking at swing shift hours to redistribute the large number of staff it takes to process ballots to smaller, more spaced-apart groups.

Recently, Gong received funding from the Federal CARES Act to help cover election expenses related to ensuring safety and efficiency in the election process. This includes public education, outreach, hiring safety and security personnel, and providing PPE and computerized equipment for those voting in-person. Gong is committed to having enough staff, equipment, materials, etc. to ensure that those who want to vote can vote, that those who show up to vote will be able to vote, and for those who vote by mail, their vote can be tracked and affirmed. Central to Gong’s message and outreach is Vote by Mail (VBM). “This is the safest option for voters,” he says. “Every voter will receive a ballot in the mail; during the March primary, 80 percent of ballots cast were VBM ballots.” He explains that SLO County has offered Permanent “No Excuse” VBM voting since 2002 (meaning anyone who wants to vote by mail can request a ballot without needing a reason why). Further, anyone wanting to track a mailed-in ballot can sign up at “Where’s My Ballot” at the Secretary of State’s website to receive notifications of where their ballot is in the pipeline.

Here is a playbook for your right to vote options:

How and where do I vote?

All registered California voters will receive a Vote By Mail (VBM) ballot. After completing your ballot, be sure to sign your return ballot envelope or it cannot be counted. Return your ballot by mail. No stamps required courtesy of postage paid by SLO County. Mail by October 27 to be counted by November 3. However, mailed ballots may be received up to 17 days after Election Day if postmarked on or before Election Day.

You may also hand-deliver your ballot to the County Clerk-Recorder’s office. Another option is to deposit your ballot in VBM Ballot Drop Boxes located around the County. Visit www.slovote.com for a list of these locations. (Information on locations provided below.)

Alternatively, the die-hards can show up to vote in-person at one of the Voter Service Centers around the County. These will be open between Saturday, October 31st, and Monday, November 2nd, 9 AM – 5 PM and Tuesday, November 3, Election Day from 7 AM – 8 PM.

Note: Concerned about ‘Ballot Harvesting?’ While highly unlikely, it’s a fair question. “If someone asks or offers to take your ballot for you, it should be someone you know and trust; it’s like putting cash in someone’s hand to buy something for you at the grocery store or pay a bill for you,” says Gong. The voter will need to sign the back of the ballot envelope to allow this, but it is OK.

Where do I vote?

You may also return your mail-in ballot physically to the County Clerk Recorder’s office or to any VBM Ballot Drop Box located in the county or Voter Service Center between October 31-November 3.

Who do I call if I have questions or want to make changes to my ballot?

The County Clerk Recorder’s office will help you with any questions you have about voting. 805-781-5228, elections@co.slo.ca.us.

Can I vote twice?

No. The mechanisms in place will likely kick out a second ballot. You can follow up on your mail-in ballot by tracking or calling the County Clerk-Recorder’s office prior to going to in-person voting for a second vote. Voting twice is not legal and is subject to criminal prosecution.

Is there any reason my ballot would not be counted?

Yes, if your ballot arrives after the deadline (see above), if your mail-in ballot is not signed or the signature on your return envelope does not match the signature on the voter’s Affidavit of Registration. Also, it will not be counted if the ballot is returned without the I.D. Return Envelope. Note: New legislation requires the Election Office to send letters to voters who forgot to sign their return envelopes or whose signature did not match their signatures on file.

Which leads us to: When should I vote?

At this point, the earlier the better in case corrections need to be made. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, spoke recently— and forcefully—about this matter saying, “Vote early to have your vote

count.” He recommends using drop boxes as does Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University in his article in the New York Times, September 3, “How Libraries Can Save the 2020 Election.” In part, it says:

“Fortunately, there is a largely overlooked part of the civic infrastructure that is ready and able to help Americans exercise the franchise, even under these troubling circumstances: libraries. Libraries already serve as polling places on Election Day throughout the country and, crucially, they provide secure, monitored ballot boxes where absentee voters can drop off their ballots before Nov. 3 and know that it will count. Secure boxes for absentee ballots are already available at some libraries in states like California, Colorado, Florida, Utah, and Washington.”

Can I vote safely in person?

Yes. While VBM and drop boxes are your safest bet, Gong says the highest level of health and safety planning is underway to protect those who prefer to vote in person. “We have revamped the entire in-person voting system,” he said. In addition to the measures described above, Gong said they have worked with a consultant for the four days the polls are open, and people can go to any Voter Service Center they choose, not just the one closest to where they live.

“We will be checking people in with laptops and ‘working the line’ to get voters into the correct lines (such as provisional voting) as quickly as possible. We will have ‘ballot on-demand printers’ that print out each ballot according to the voter’s address.” ADA accessible devices will help those with special needs vote independently and confidentially on their own and in Spanish if needed.

Additionally, 42,000 surgical masks and hand sanitizer (provided by Anheuser-Busch) will be available and workers will wear N95 masks and face shields. Other safeguards include sneeze guards, one-time use pens, and loads of cleaning supplies on hand.

How do I volunteer?

Across the nation, the scramble is on for younger volunteers to staff the polls as those who typically sign up for the job tend to be in the population that is currently considered “at-risk” for the coronavirus. But, in SLO, Gong said that an influx of high school-aged volunteers has help filled the slots available, though some opportunities remain for those seeking to assist with office or observation duties. Information is available on the website.

Gong, whose schedule right now is full-time-plus, manages to squeeze in a life where he can. He sits on the Board of California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) as Treasurer for the organization and has served on the Board of Directors for the Bruce Lee Foundation—a connection to his 30 years plus in practicing and teaching martial arts. Gong donated the proceeds of his book “Bruce Lee—The Evolution of a Martial Artist” to the foundation. He lives in Atascadero with his wife Sherry and sons Derek (18) and Darin (16); he and his sons play trumpet in the San Luis Obispo Trumpet Alliance. But in this moment, he’s clearly focused on the importance of ensuring the election under his charge goes on without a hitch.

Gong encourages everyone to vote. “Even if they don’t have a favorite at the top of the ticket, there may be down-ballot candidates locally that might really matter to someone such as those running for school boards, supervisors or mayors, or propositions and often these races are close, sometimes within a few votes literally,” he said. Gong recalled one tight runoff that was “down to three votes.” And another that ended in a tie vote, which was broken by drawing cards between the candidates.

“We’ve thought of everything to bring voters on board, including,” he laughed, “if you vote by mail, you’ll still get your ‘I voted’ sticker!” But Gong’s serious about his mission: “Be a part of today’s history by voting,” he said. “Our futures depend on it.” And perhaps for those on the fence about voting, he offers these words from recently departed Civil Rights icon John Lewis: “My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”

For more information, contact:
San Luis Obispo County Clerk Recorder’s Office
1055 Monterey Street
805-781-5228
www.slocounty.ca.gov
elections@co.slo.ca.us