Colo-fornia Here We Come? SB450 Heads to Governor

SB450

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California legislators took another step toward a major overhaul of the Golden State’s voting model with passage of SB450, which would move away from reliance of neighborhood polling places and toward the so-called “Colorado model” which involves a combination of mailed ballots, drop boxes and vote centers. The Sacramento Bee has more:

California is on the verge of sweeping changes to its election system intended to boost plummeting voter turnout.

The state Senate on Monday sent a measure to Gov. Jerry Brown that would begin shifting California away from its network of neighborhood polling places to primarily mail ballots.

Based on a model used in Colorado, Senate Bill 450 would authorize counties beginning in 2018 to conduct elections where every voter is mailed a ballot and drop-off locations are available up to four weeks ahead of time in lieu of polling places. Temporary “vote centers” would also be open starting 10 days before the election to register voters and accept ballots.

“The idea, members, is that limiting voters to a single location on a single day within a single period of time simply no longer makes sense,” state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, the measure’s author, said. “Many, many people who fully intended to vote don’t end up voting because of convenience.”

The bill passed the Assembly 47-31 and the Senate 27-11 and now heads to Governor Jerry Brown for his approval before an August 31 deadline. His signature is not a formality, given his well-known independent streak and consistent concern about the impact of legislation on the state’s finances. But if he does sign the bill, it would result in a major change to the way Californians get and return ballots. Earlier this week, the LA Times took a look at those changes:

SB 450 would offer each of California’s 58 counties the chance to embrace an alternative to traditional elections. In most of those counties, every registered voter would receive a ballot in the mail and polling places would be scrapped. Voters would be able to turn in ballots either at secure drop boxes placed around the county or at the new “vote center” locations.

Some of those vote centers would be open at least 10 days before election day, and would allow last-minute registration, a check of existing registration status and the ability to cast a vote in person even if the voter lives in a different city inside county lines. The bill says counties should work together at transporting the ballot of a voter who lives in Ventura County, for example, and mistakenly casts a ballot in Kern County.

“From a voter choice standpoint, all of a sudden you have the choice to go any vote center in your county,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who [urged] legislators to send the bill to the governor’s desk…

Unlike traditional polling places, the vote centers are envisioned as staffed by paid workers with more than the few hours of training normally given to temporary poll workers. Elections officials who have endorsed SB 450 say they envision the sites as one-stop-shopping for voters in convenient locations like retail districts and downtown business zones.

If enacted, SB450 will present counties, especially larger ones, with the challenge of optimizing locations for the new dropboxes and vote centers – though not everywhere and not right away:

The formulas in the bill language would allow Los Angeles County, which had more than 4,500 neighborhood polling places June 7, to open as few as 100 early vote centers for elections starting in 2020. In the final three days of early voting and on election day itself, there would need to be about 500 vote centers spread throughout the county …

If it becomes law, SB 450 would allow for only gradual change. A handful of counties including Orange County would be allowed to adopt the new system for the 2018 elections. All other counties would be allowed to replace polling places with vote centers in 2020.

Los Angeles County, home to as many voters as some U.S. states, would be treated differently from every other county. Although the county could begin eliminating polling places as soon as 2020, SB 450 does not require every one of its voters to be mailed a ballot until 2024. That would mean over four years, some Los Angeles County residents would be forced to use one of the vote centers to cast a ballot.

Logan said that he’s heard the criticisms that too few vote centers in California’s most traffic-plagued region could leave Los Angeles voters with too few options, and that it was likely the county would offer substantially more than the 500 mandated facilities.

The big wild card will be the willingness of voters to cast ballots by mail:

A key question for lawmakers and researchers is whether enough California voters are willing to cast ballots at home to make SB 450’s hopes for efficiency and flexibility pencil out. Final election statistics show 59% of ballots were cast by mail in June.

A survey by UC Davis’ California Civic Engagement Project found young voters and Latino voters both used voting by mail less frequently in 2014 than their counterparts in the state’s electorate. Latino voters in Los Angeles County, according to the report, were among the least likely voters in the state to cast ballots by mail.

Mindy Romero, director of the UC Davis project, said there is a “trust” issue with many Latino voters in assuring their vote will make it through the mail and count.

“When they go in person, they know they’ve actually cast their ballot,” she said.

Supporters of SB 450 and elections officials said the key to such a major change in the election system is an intense and far-reaching voter education effort. The bill mandates new county efforts to explain the system to voters, though it leaves many of the details to local officials.

Obviously, this is a huge deal – not just for California but also for the future of the “Colorado model” in other states. Before that can happen, though, SB450 faces two key tests: first, getting the Governor’s signature by August 31 and then, if that happens, the much larger task of transitioning the state’s election system. For that reason, the message this week and in the long term is … stay tuned!

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