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Massive reductions in San Diego County’s polling locations are hitting some neighborhoods harder than others, an inewsource ZIP code analysis finds. Voters in ZIP codes that include San Diego’s City Heights and Old Town have seen the greatest losses in polling locations, along with ZIP codes for El Cajon and La Mesa.

To help control the spread of COVID-19, the county reduced the number of polling places from about 1,600 to just 235. Those locations open Saturday and will remain open through Tuesday.

In the 92105 ZIP code, which includes City Heights and Oak Park, there were 23 polling locations in the 2018 general election. Now, there’s just one. That’s for an area with about 31,200 registered voters.

The reduction in polling locations is also significant in the 92110 ZIP code, which includes Old Town and Bay Park. Its 17 locations have also dropped to one. About 16,600 registered voters live there. 

Why this matters

Local voters in this general election will help pick a president, San Diego’s next mayor and at least two new members of Congress, along with deciding many other races. But the pandemic is forcing unprecedented changes for in-person voting that could impact who ultimately casts ballots.

Other areas of the county have retained more of their polling locations, inewsource found. 

A ZIP code covering parts of Rancho Bernardo, which has about as many registered voters as the City Heights ZIP code, still has six polling locations for the election. 

Point Loma’s ZIP code, which has a little less than half as many registered voters as the City Heights ZIP code, has two polling locations.

Evan Crawford, a researcher who focuses on elections and voting behavior at the University of San Diego, said the findings highlight how difficult it is to place polling locations equitably when drastic changes need to be made within a few months.

“This is the reality of COVID,” Crawford said.

“There’s no good responses to this,” he added. “There’s only, what’s the least bad way to do this?”

The analysis provides a snapshot of how the significant changes this election are playing out in different areas across the county, but it doesn’t capture the full complexities of the voting process. 

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The county Registrar of Voters Office decides where to place polling locations based on political districts and the many different contests that residents are eligible to vote in. That means some voters are assigned to polling locations outside their ZIP codes.

County Registrar Michael Vu said his office doesn’t rely on ZIP code data to make decisions about polling locations, and he feels the locations chosen are equitable.

Vu added that the number of polling locations is well above the minimum state requirement set by an executive order Gov. Gavin Newsom issued in June — 28% greater, he said. 

His team aimed to put polling places at well-known sites and accounted for factors such as available power, sufficient parking and the size of the space. Most of the locations chosen are at least 2,000 square feet, larger than in prior elections. Vu said his team did not consider vote-by-mail patterns. 

Of the 235 polling locations, more than 150 are at public schools. 

“I think, frankly, our decision making has been thus far pretty darn solid in terms of how we have managed the election,” Vu said.

As of Thursday morning, his office had received more than 937,000 ballots. 

Election workers collect ballots from drivers at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office, Oct. 22, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Civic activists and researchers warn that for some voters, transportation and a lack of education on the new process may be a challenge.

Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, co-director of the community nonprofit Universidad Popular in Vista, said she’s concerned many voters are unaware of the changes. Her group also has offices in San Marcos, Escondido and Pauma.

“Our sense is that there’s been very little information going out to communities, particularly communities of color, communities that are not as informed or engaged in this process, or who may not have access to the information because they’re not as well connected technologically,” Nuñez-Alvarez said.

How to Vote

Polling locations are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Saturday, Oct. 31, through Monday, Nov. 2, and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3. 

You can look up a polling location near you online. Registered voters are assigned a polling location in advance, but you can cast a ballot anywhere in the county without having to cast a provisional ballot if you choose.

If you live in San Diego County and have not yet registered to vote, you can still register and cast a ballot that will be counted for this election at any county polling location or at the county registrar’s office

If you want to vote with a ballot you received in the mail, make sure it’s postmarked by Tuesday, Nov. 3. You can also drop off mail ballots at polling locations without waiting in the in-person voting line. 

For more information, read our voting guide to all the changes. If you need additional help or have questions, you can contact the county at (858) 565-5800. You can also email our team at vote@inewsource.org

Three of Vista’s ZIP codes had a total of 51 polling locations during the 2018 general election. Those ZIP codes now have eight. 

The ZIP code 92014, which includes Del Mar, dropped from 10 locations during the 2018 general election to one for this election. Nearby 92024, which mostly encompasses Encinitas, fell from 34 to four polling locations. 

Nuñez-Alvarez said government officials are partly to blame and have not properly prepared the public. She helped recruit poll workers this year and said she’s heard that some are feeling uneasy after receiving training from the county due to all the changes. They are hoping voters will be patient, she said. 

“This is dramatically different from what any of us have seen or experienced. And so I think that just all across, there’s been very little information going out to the public, very few resources,” she said. 

“I anticipate that voters are going to be frustrated because they’re going to show up to a whole new system.”

Some voters in the county’s rural areas also will face challenges. For example, Jacumba in East County had its own polling site in the March primary. For this election, voters there will have to drive 25 miles to Pine Valley to vote in person. 

But research shows voters living in cities may struggle the most with the changes.

“If it means instead of walking, I now need to drive and I don’t have a car, that means now I’m going to have to figure out public transportation if I’m actually going to vote. That’s an additional burden,” Crawford said. 

Vu said the county has tried to overcome those burdens by educating voters across the county about the changes. He said the registrar’s office has followed all federal laws regarding language translation requirements and has hired a contractor to help determine where digitals ads should be placed to spread the word to minority communities. 

Polling locations from the March primary that have been eliminated for this election were sent 11-by-17-inch maps to post showing the new polling sites, Vu said. 

Voters do have the option to cast ballots at any location in the county without having to cast provisional ballots.  

Envelopes containing ballots that have been mailed or dropped off at various locations are sorted into batches at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office, Oct. 22, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The registrar’s office has heavily encouraged voters to cast mail ballots rather than voting in person. In San Diego County and across the state, all registered voters were sent mail ballots. 

Mindy Romero, the founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC, said that while early voting numbers have been strong, she still expects polling locations to play a key role. Voters who have strong habits of voting in person — something particularly common among Latino communities — are likely to continue voting in person, she said. 

“We know we’re still going to have a huge number of voters on Election Day,” Romero said.

Romero said she knows how challenging a task it can be to place polling locations equitably. Her organization proposed polling sites for the general election for most California counties, including San Diego, using an algorithm that factors in transportation methods, voter registration numbers, disabled populations, ethnicity, income level, vote-by-mail rates and English language proficiency.

Romero said Vu’s office reviewed her team’s findings. Ultimately, much will depend on how well voters understand the changes, she said.

“You can make an election and a process that’s incredibly equitable, but it’s only going to work if people are aware of it and have gotten the message,” she said. “And also, by the way, trust the message.” 

How we conducted this analysis

We gathered the list of 2018 and 2020 general election polling locations from the registrar’s office and aggregated the lists by ZIP code. (There are 95 ZIP codes in our data.) Then we calculated the percent change in polling locations from 2018 to 2020. 

We excluded ZIP codes with populations smaller than 5,000 people when looking at the most impacted areas of the county. These 15 ZIP codes had few polling locations in the 2018 general election to begin with. 

We gathered voter registration data by ZIP code from Political Data Inc. Then we calculated the number of registered voters per polling center in the 2018 general election and in the 2020 general election, and the percent change in voters per location from 2018 to 2020.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mary Plummer

Mary Plummer is an investigative reporter at inewsource who covers infrastructure and government accountability stories. She’s been a reporter, editor and radio producer in Southern California for more than 10 years. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of...

Jill Castellano

Jill Castellano is an investigative data reporter for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...