If you voted this fall in a neighborhood garage or the clubhouse of a park or a school auditorium, remember the experience well. It may not be repeated anytime soon. If you saw American flags flying at your precinct polling place, that sight may also disappear.
A whole new election system is about to begin in California, complete with “vote centers” and a big expansion of early balloting. The new system will start phasing in 2018 in 14 counties and should be operative by 2020 everywhere in the state.
One thing for sure, losing candidates and those who expect to lose will have new fodder for the “rigged election” cry taken up so vocally this fall by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. With more mail-in ballots involved than ever before, same-day voter registration and personnel in place to provide language assistance, charges of fraud will be common at least while the new system is being broken in.
The hope behind the new system, pushed hard by Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, is to increase voter turnout drastically.
After low-turnout disappointed officials in 2014 and the off-year-elections of 2013 and 2015, they began casting about for changes. The new system will deliver mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the 28 days before the actual Election Day, aiming to end any need to vote in a single place on just one day.
“We’ve got to…implement a new voting model,” said Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, who sponsored the new system in the Legislature. “Our current system has failed, as our voter turnout rates continued to decline toward record lows.”
Turnout in both the 2014 primary (25 percent of registered voters) and that year’s November general election (42 percent) was at record lows, making Padilla and the Legislature a bit desperate to push numbers up.
So instead of voters needing to sign up to receive mail-in ballots for every election, from now they will go to everyone automatically. Never mind the tradition of the secret ballot; everyone from labor unions to employers to neighborhood groups is now free to hold ballot-marking parties before Election Day. This has actually been true since mail-in voting became common in the late 1970s, and there have never been charges it led to mass fraud or coerced voting for particular candidates or causes. But such outcries may arise now.
The guinea pigs for the new system will be voters in Calaveras, Inyo, Madera, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Shasta, Sierra, Sutter and Tuolumne counties, with in-person voting at centers spotted around each county weeks before Election Day. Voters will also be able to drop off ballots at those centers, rather than mailing them in.
Counties pushed for this, partly as a cost-cutting measure. The fewer polling places, the lower the cost of an election. But counties moving to the new system will all have to adopt detailed plans through a system involving public hearings and input. Community groups, advocates for the disabled and other individuals will all be able to express preferences for vote center locations. But expect them to be placed in public buildings where there’s either no rent or low rent.
The politicians behind this system claim it will provide far greater flexibility than longstanding precinct polling places. “It’s time to modernize the voting process,” said Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg of Los Angeles, a co-sponsor. “We need to provide the same convenience and flexibility (people) have in other areas of their lives. You can stream a movie or deposit a check with your phone any time, but without this (change), people still have to arrange their busy schedules to get to a polling place on a single day and that has hurt turnout.”
Only time will tell whether all this actually spurs more people to vote. And no one knows whether the inevitable charges of fraud or vote-fixing will have any merit. But the people behind the change are certainly correct about one thing: Turnout had become far too low in recent years, often allowing a small minority of eligible voters to choose the people who make key decisions for everyone.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.