Big Golden Changes Coming: California Governor Brown Signs SB450

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[Image via scpr]

 

Last Thursday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will move the state toward a new election system in which voters will receive ballots in the mail and then have a variety of options for returning them. SFGate has more:

California will overhaul its election system beginning in 2018 so that voters have more options on when and where to cast their ballots in future elections, under a bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed Thursday.

SB450 by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, allows counties to opt into the new system, and if they do, those counties would be required to mail all voters a ballot that can be cast at voting centers up to 10 days before election day. The ballots can also be returned by mail.

“People lead increasingly complicated lives; we should provide them with maximum flexibility when it comes to voting,” Allen said in a statement. “Under this new law, people will be able to choose the time and place to vote that is most convenient for their lifestyle and their schedule.”

Lawmakers modeled the law after Colorado’s election process, which has increased voter turnout and reduced the cost of holding elections. [See previous Election Academy posts here and here.]

Supporters of the bill said the increased flexibility will especially help working Californians and hopefully lead to higher voter turnout.

“Why limit voting to one location on a single Tuesday,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who sponsored the legislation.

The new system will be phased in gradually:

Under SB450, 14 of the state’s 58 counties can opt into the new system beginning in 2018, including San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in the Bay Area. The remaining counties in the state may start in 2020. If a county opts in, mail ballots would be sent to every voter 28 days before the election. Voters could then vote in person at a voting center or mail their ballot in or drop their ballot off.

Voting centers would replace neighborhood polling places and instead be open for anyone within a county to cast their ballot. While there would be fewer voting centers than polling places, the centers would be open longer, including on the two weekends leading up to the election, and workers there would help voters with same-day registration, replacing a ballot or providing materials in a different language.

The Los Angeles Times notes there will be considerable need for voter education, given concerns about the impact of the change on some communities:

[T]he move away from polling places could some as a surprise to Californians who have spent decades voting in their neighborhoods. A report released two weeks ago by UC Davis’ California Civic Engagement Project found the “vote center” model raised fears with some African Americans about voter suppression and voting access. [The report is here.]

Supporters of the new law say voter education efforts will be key to making it work.

The changes to election operations will come in two stages: 14 counties will be able to move toward less in-person voting in 2018, and the remaining counties will be allowed to opt in to the new system in 2020. Counties that implement the new system will have to mail ballots to all registered voters, though Los Angeles County will not have to do so until 2024.

Needless to say, the combination of a big state and a big change makes this a very big story for the field of election administration. Combine this story with recent news that the state has finally completed VoteCal, its statewide voter database – which will facilitate same-day registration – and it’s clear that sweeping changes are coming to voting in the Golden State.

These changes won’t affect the 2016 election, which is now just 36 days away, but still – stay tuned …

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