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San Francisco prepares for unprecedented November election

Amid a lingering pandemic and fears over mail service, this election season is like no other. San Francisco officials have scrambled to adapt Nov. 3 plans to meet the challenging times and protect voters and election workers. 

Part of the revised plan includes moving the City Hall voting center to outside the Bill Graham Civic Center Auditorium with voting booths and ballot drop-off boxes, said Department of Elections Director John Arntz.

On Aug. 31, Arntz provided city supervisors and the public an overview of the department’s election operation plans, ensuring voters receive their vote-by-mail ballots and protecting voters and workers at polling locations.

The board passed an ordinance earlier this year requiring the DOE to devise a plan for the November election by June 30.

Arntz said the Mayor’s Office and City Administrator worked out a lease with the Bill Graham Civic Center Auditorium, which is operated by Another Planet. The agreement allows the department to perform some ballot processing at the auditorium, though not all of it can be completed there due the lack of a secure fiber connection.

Arntz said:

“For anyone who’s been in City Hall around election time, you might have seen ballots coming down the hallway from the loading dock on Grove Street and going down past our main office to the hallway down the far side of the building. That process will still continue.”

According to Arntz, election workers will still use City Hall to initially scan vote-by-mail envelopes and verify signatures. Once those steps are taken, ballots will be transferred to the auditorium where the rest of the ballot processing will take place.

Arntz said:

“All these operations that we have will be streamed on our website.”

Ballots will be sent out by mail to all registered voters as ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom through an executive order. Arntz said ballots will start arriving in mail boxes on Oct 5.

Nik Wojcik/SFBay ‘I Voted’ stickers will accompany Nov. 3, 2020 election mail-in ballots.

The ballots will include the “I Voted” sticker as well as a peel and seal strip on the flap of the envelope so voters will not have to lick the envelope.

Voters can also drop off ballots at the auditorium, which will be open on weekdays beginning Oct. 5 through Nov. 3 — the facility will also be open during the two weekends before Election Day. 

Thrive City — the outdoor area surrounding the Chase Center where the Golden State Warriors play — will also serve as a drop-off location beginning Oct. 31 and through Election Day.

In a report presented to the Elections Commission Wednesday, Arntz said additional drop-off locations will be established at the Bayview Linda-Burks Burton Library and the Excelsior Branch Library. The two library locations will also be available as of Oct. 31.

The department is working with community-based organizations that received grants totaling $250,000 to facilitate voter outreach. The groups will provide election materials in multiple languages for vulnerable and otherwise hard-to-reach voters.

<a href="">Brian Kusler</a>/Flickr San Francisco, Calif. election officials are avoiding some historically common polling locations, such as senior centers, for the Nov. 3, 2020 election due to increased risk of Covid-19 among older adults.

The eight organizations awarded outreach grants include the A. Philip Randolph Institute of San Francisco, Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinese Newcomers Service Center, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, Filipino-American Development Foundation, San Francisco Rising, San Francisco Shanghai Association and San Francisco Study Center.

While the goal in securing 588 polling locations has been met, Arntz said the department is seeking backup polling sites to be used in the event of last-minute cancellations.

Some polling places used during the March election, such as senior centers, will not be pursued due to increased Covid-19 health risks among older residents.

Election workers will put up multi-language signs at each polling location to remind voters of face covering and social distancing requirements.

The department will provide poll workers with personal protection equipment, including face masks, shields and gloves. Additionally, cleaning supplies will be provided to ensure all voting equipment and high-touch surfaces are sanitized in an effort to prevent Covid-19 spread.

Every polling place will have a protection plan in place based on the specific layout, Arntz said. The plans will address all logistic aspects of the operation, including where the registration tables and voting booths are positioned.

All poll workers will undergo a health assessment similar to what city employees are subjected to daily. People will not be allowed to work at polling locations if they have been diagnosed with Covid-19 within 10 days, have experienced virus symptoms in the prior 24 hours or have had had close contact with anyone who has contracted the virus.

Ching Wong/SFBay A voter fills out a ballot at City Hall Voting Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

Arntz said 3,600 people have applied to become poll workers, but the department still seeks bilingual workers, especially those who speak Chinese and Filipino.

The director Wednesday also requested a general waiver from the commission that, if approved by the Board of Supervisors, would allow city employees to work at polling locations. 

Arntz briefly addressed working with local representatives of the United States Postal Service to distribute voter information guides and mail-in ballots, saying the relationship “remains in good standing.” 

Eligible people still interested in becoming poll workers can sign up on the department’s website, and individuals or organizations in a position to host polling locations can send an email to

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