County Improves One-Stop Passport Application Process
Area residents will soon have access to a streamlined passport issuance process inside of the County Administration Building in Merced.
Thanks to the purchase of new equipment, the Registrar of Voters office on the main floor is now able to provide photography and printing services in addition to handling the paperwork needed for residents to be granted a passport. The new features are expected to begin on July 24.
County officials say they are processing a greater number of passports per month as travelers start heading overseas again in greater numbers following the COVID-19 pandemic. Mel Levey, the county’s Registrar of Voters, says the goal is to eliminate some of the headaches associated with international travel by handling all components of the passport application process in one office, including the taking of a photo that meets State Department requirements.
Currently, residents looking to get a passport are tasked with getting a passport photograph taken on their own — either through a private photographer or through chain stores that offer the service. They then have to bring the photographs with them alongside of their application paperwork to a scheduled appointment. In a number of instances, applicants have had to reschedule appointments and/or make several trips to county office because they either forgot to get the photographs taken, or the ones they had made were not taken or sized properly.
“On July 24, we’ll have the ability to be a one-stop shop for passport applications and take residents’ photos, process their application, and send them off to the State Department,” Levey told the Times. “The best part is that folks will know that the photos we take will meet State Department standards and to the passport agency’s standards.”
The price set by the county office for passport photos is $15 per photograph.
Staff members within the Elections Department started the training on the new equipment a few weeks ago. The equipment includes a specialized camera and software, an LED light panel, on-site printing with the correct dimensions and resolution, and die-cuts to trim the photo print to the final dimensions needed for the passport.
An overlay in the camera’s LCD screen guides the placement of the applicant’s face within the full frame of the photograph. Once the applicant is placed correctly within the frame, the LED light panel helps ensure that a fully-lit shadowless portrait is taken. As the photo file is passed off to a wireless printer, staff members ensure that the placement of key facial features are framed perfectly. Provided that the photograph passes this placement and sizing check, the photograph is cropped using a die-cut to bring the printed photograph down to its final size for the passport application.
Applicants are responsible for showing up in appropriate attire, which is outlined on the State Department’s website at: travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/how-apply/photos.html.
Staff members are also having fun placing pins on a large wooden world map that denote the travel destinations of local residents who apply for passports through the office
The focused effort on increasing throughput and accuracy in the passport application process has already begun to yield results. Just four months ago, the department would typically process around seven passport applications per day, but Levey says that number has since risen a great deal, making the new equipment to help streamline the process even more vital.
“Right now we are processing 19 to 20 passports a day,” Levey said. “Our appointments are still booked out several weeks, although that number is coming down because we’re opening up more appointments.”
Levey went on to say that both local residents and others outside the area in need of a quick turnaround on their passports can utilize the new expedited process in Merced County.
Supervising Election Specialist Jessika Musquiz explained that while it is common for county governments to only serve residents of their own county, Merced County’s passport service staff are happy to assist residents of all counties. “We will do neighboring or other counties that want to schedule an appointment with us, and we will be able to assist them as well.”
Said Levey, “I think the biggest thing is that this is the Elections Department, and so we’re obviously here administering elections and doing all of the voter registrations, and the passport service is really an additional service we offer the community, and it really is a one-of-a-kind service.”
From start to finish, the applicant’s portion of the process can be expected to take between 5 to 15 minutes, provided that all needed documentation for the process is on hand for the appointment. For more information on the process, including a complete schedule of passport application fees, residents visit online at: countyofmerced.com/3636/Passport-Information, or by calling the Elections Department directly at (209) 385-7541.