Looking outside California for election reforms that improve turnout and save money

960 200 Amber Nelson

California elections are in a difficult place: fewer citizens are turning out to vote, the cost of running elections are on the rise, available funds are insufficient and the state’s voting systems are growing old and outdated. 

“The world is changing and voting should change too,” says Caitlin Maple, California Forward research analyst. She points out recent statewide strides in making it easier to register to vote. Online registration and the 2015 Motor Voter bill both work toward increasing the number of registered voters.

Unfortunately, more registered voters hasn't necessarily translated to more voting. This year in particular saw a significant early spike of registration in January, according to Mindy Romero, the founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. But, the actual turnout of just over 47 percent was lower than the 2008 presidential primary turnout of 59 percent.

Maple suggests that looking at election models from other states could increase turnout and save money over the long term. California Forward’s in-depth election financing report “Investing in California’s Democracy: Building a Partnership for Performance” explores strategies used by California counties and other states to control costs and improve voting systems.

Colorado is of particular interest because of their funding methodology and emphasis on smart technology and pragmatic long-term thinking.

Elections in Colorado are funded in large part by the state, with counties also contributing at varying rates depending on population. This helps the counties deliver good voter experiences while directives from the state, which provide for a certain level of continuity from county to county, can be implemented statewide.

In addition, Colorado's state funding for election administration is derived from business license fees, creating a significant source of funds year after year.

In California, state election mandates, like offering vote by mail, were paid for by the state until funding was cut off during the financial crisis of 2010. Since that time, county election officials across the state have struggled to meet the mandates and run elections with no end in sight for the lack of funding. 

Colorado’s technology shift began in 2011, when a group convened to look at same-day voter registration. Their intention was to increase voter turnout by making registration easier. But Amber McReynolds, director of elections for the Denver Elections Division, saw an opportunity to do more. She knew same day registration wasn’t feasible with the current technology and systems. So instead of shutting down the conversation, she expanded it by asking “What else?”

The result was new elections legislation passed in 2013. The law requires that vote-by-mail ballots are sent to every registered voter 22 days before an election. Traditional polling places were replaced with vote centers and drop boxes where voters can cast their ballots up to 10 days prior to an election, if they choose not to mail their ballots. The law also fulfilled the original request to allow same-day voter registration.

Today, vote centers across Colorado are linked so that a voter can visit any center in their county to register and vote. Though there are far fewer physical voting locations, each center serves a larger population and their extended hours offer more flexibility for voters while reducing staffing costs. The technology reduces the cost of polling place staff and streamlines the systems. But it takes more than innovative technology to keep the systems running efficiently.

“Cleaning our lists is the number one thing we do,” says Judd Choate, Colorado director of elections. One of the biggest long-term cost savings the state has implemented is investing up front to keep track of registered voter address changes. Using both the National Change of Address database and Electronic Registration Information Center, Colorado avoids costs associated with undeliverable ballots including printing, processing and staff time. Between 2010 and 2014, the state has cut their undeliverable mail rate by more than half. With more than 90 percent of votes being cast by mail, the savings is significant.

The changes in Colorado seem to be working. Romero points to a Pew survey of registered Colorado voters which found in 2014, 95 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with their voting experience following implementation of the vote center model.

Other states are paying attention to Colorado’s transformation. Hawaii, Nevada, Louisiana, Minnesota and other states have invited Choate to share the new model in person as they look for ways to modernize their election systems.

But is the Colorado model a good fit for California? According Romero’s research, Californians who use vote-by-mail ballots do so for three key reasons: they want to take their time in voting, they want to discuss issues and candidates with friends and family, and they want to save time. Those who vote in person, however, choose that method because they like the social aspects of voting in person, their polling place is close to home and they want to get their “Voted” sticker.  

The issues of cost and technological modernization need to be balanced with the larger picture of getting more Californians engaged in the election process. Supported by the James Irvine Foundation, California Forward's election financing report examines many of these underlying issues. But for Maple, who led the research, the big question is still, “How can we make it easier for people to vote?”


Amber Nelson

All stories by: Amber Nelson