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As Power Shut Offs Increase, California Counties Are Making Plans For Elections Without Electricity

Andrew Nixon/ Capital Public Radio
Generators in place in at businesses during a PG&E power shutoff in Nevada City Oct. 9, 2019

After California utilities cut power to millions of customers in October, county election officials are wasting little time making sure polling places are prepared in the case of an outage during an election. 

Counties are using pre-election surveys to make sure polling places and vote-counting centers have equipment needed to mitigate the impact of power shutoffs. That includes back-up generators, flashlights, lanterns and portable power equipment. 

Some county election offices are also developing multitiered plans to ensure every vote is counted if an outage occurs.

In Placer County, election officials are already preparing precincts ahead of next year’s primary in March and general election in November. 

“We continually survey our polling places,” said Ryan Ronco, Placer County’s registrar of voters. 

That typically includes measuring doorway thresholds and installing ramps to increase accessibility. “And now, we’re also mitigating power [outages],” he said. 

Placer County relies more heavily on precincts, since it does not participate in the Voter’s Choice Act, which encourages vote-by-mail, ballot drop-offs and early voting. 

Ronco says next year’s election will require about 250 polling places, and more than half of them are located in areas that could be impacted by a major outage. 

Placer held a vote on November 5 for the Assembly District 1 special election, which required 11 polling places in Placer. 

“We were concerned about a number of those locations if power were to be shut off on election day,” Ronco said.

No outages occurred, but Ronco says it was a good exercise heading into the much larger election next year. He says the lack of a backup power generator may be a factor in relocating some polling places. 

Elsewhere in the state, Yolo County — which was also impacted by the PG&E shutoffs in recent weeks — is developing an agreement with neighboring Solano County in the case of an outage. 

Jesse Salinas, the county’s chief elections official, said the agreement would allow Yolo County to tally ballots at Solano’s vote-counting center in the case of an outage and back-up power failure. 

“Obviously we’re having to consider [outages] at a level that we hadn’t thought about before,” Salinas said. “In case for some reason the generator blows, we still need a way to count the ballots.”

According to Salinas, that would likely mean loading up a few vehicles with uncounted ballots and driving — with a sheriff’s detail accompanying them — to Solano County’s vote-counting center. Under the agreement, Solano County could tally its votes at Yolo County’s counting center if it experienced a complete power outage. 

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the California Secretary of States office said the office helps fund improved voter infrastructure, which can include back-up generators.

According to Salinas, the California Secretary of State’s office has also included power outage scenarios in its mock election trainings. 

The widespread outages in recent weeks were caused by the threat of wildfires caused by dangerous weather conditions. 

In late October, PG&E cut power to 970,000 customers — or about 2.9 million Californians — across dozens of counties. Weeks earlier, PG&E cut power to 738,000 customers. 

The early October shutoff stirred widespread criticism from customers and public officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom. The California Public Utility Commission said it plans to investigate the shutoff and laid out requirements for PG&E to improve its handling of future outages. 

PG&E said it would credit residential and business customers, costing the utility about $65 million, as a result of the early October planned shutoff. 

Southern California Edison has also cut power to tens of thousands of customers in recent weeks. 

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio