Upgrading California's elections for the 21st century
December 8, 2015
Punch card voting and the prototype voting machine being developed by IDEO and Los Angeles County. (Photo Credits: L.A. County Registrar/Recorder and IDEO)
A new era of voting in California is fast approaching. Why, you might ask, in a world where information and services are accessible at the tips of our fingers almost any time of day, is voting so ”old fashioned”?
As comedian Chris Rock famously observed, “They don’t want you to vote. If they did, we wouldn’t vote on a Tuesday. In November. You ever throw a party on a Tuesday? No. Because nobody would come.”
There's even an election reform organization called Why Tuesday? which is dedicated to confronting policymakers throughout the nation on this topic.
So, let me tell you why we vote on a Tuesday. This was done so voters were able to observe the Sabbath on Sunday, travel by horse and buggy on Monday and arrive to the polls by Tuesday. Hardly applicable to life in 2015, right? Now Californians are starting to discuss the implementation of policies that address this and other election-related issues, which intend to move the state away from the dark ages.
California’s Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, championed the New Motor Voter Act which automates voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles and will potentially add millions of new registered voters to the rolls in coming years. If Mr. Padilla has anything to say about it, this won’t be the last victory on his trophy shelf.
Secretary Padilla is also supporting Senate Bill 450, authored by Senators Ben Allen and Robert Hertzberg. This is based upon Colorado’s “vote center model”, in which voters are mailed ballots a month before election day and given the option to either mail it back or deliver it in person to a ballot drop box or any vote center in their county. This could mean easier and more accessible voting for Californians.
California voting centers would be vastly different than what we are used to. These centers would be open 10 days prior to election day with regular, predictable hours for people to vote at a time and day convenient for them. Talk about options.
It would be harder to say “I didn’t have time to vote”, wouldn’t it?
The Future of California Elections (FoCE), an election reform collaborative, hosted its Fall Forum at the University of California Center Sacramento exactly one year from election day 2016 to discuss what’s in store for California’s elections. Secretary Padilla spoke of his hope for the passage of SB 450 and its benefits. In addition to making it easier for busy Californians to receive and return ballots, he also alluded to two other important factors: voter turnout and cost-savings. Now we’re listening.
According to Secretary Padilla, since the implementation of the vote center model in Colorado, voter turnout has increased by 20 percent and election administrators have enjoyed a 30 percent cost-savings. More simply put, Colorado now has the second highest voter turnout in the nation, and they’re saving money.
"We're going to work systematically to give (California) voters options,” said Padilla at this year’s California Economic Summit in Ontario, California. “Options on either voting by mail or voting in person, voting on election day or early voting, voting at the polling place by where we live or voting at any vote center in the county, if the Legislature approves Senate Bill 450 next year."
While California may be following the lead of Oregon and Colorado in some aspects of modernizing elections, it may also be forging a new path in light of the ‘impending voting system crisis’ in which voting systems across California and the U.S. are deteriorating simultaneously.
One county in California has decided to take an innovative approach to this dilemma. Los Angeles’ voting modernization project is on track to build new voting systems for the nation’s most populous county. L.A. County’s Registrar-Recorder, Dean Logan, has partnered with the firm IDEO to construct voting machines that are designed to be customer-centric, focused on the voter experience, and featuring the ease of using a smartphone.
“We are the cusp of significant changes and improvements to the elections process in California, but the success of those changes depends on the modernization of our core infrastructure and the regulatory support to carry us into the future," said Logan. "More than just technology and equipment, we want to ensure a process that offers usability, access and security equal to the significance and impact of an individual vote."
Creative and innovative election reforms are making their way through the legislature -- but in California another big question remains: Who pays for it?
With the question of funding on many minds, California Forward (Ca Fwd), aims to discover ways to more sustainably fund election administration. CA Fwd’s Election Funding Project, has set out to discover how elections are funded in California and other states in order to create a ‘menu of options’ for state and local governments to finance elections.
It will open the door to discussions on how California can use innovation and research-based policy to finance governance; and perhaps, even ideas like vote centers and modernized voting systems.
"CA Fwd was created to be the link between good ideas, sound analysis and visionary recommendations and the actual enactment and implementation needed to grow jobs, promote cost-effective public services and create accountability for results,” said Jim Mayer, CA Fwd president and CEO. "Addressing this long-standing issue is important to help improve voter participation in California.”
Through the vision of reform-minded organizations like CA Fwd and FoCE, as well as champions for change in both the executive and legislative branches, California is beginning to see a shift in its ideology toward elections. Once commonplace, we’ll begin to see barriers associated with registration, ballot casting and staying informed diminish in years to come, allowing voters the opportunity to have their voices heard.
As CA Fwd declares on its website “for democracies to work, elected leaders need to be responsive and representative, and voters must be able to hold elected officials accountable for results."
Democratic integrity requires an electoral process that empowers voters and gives candidates and incumbents the incentives to listen and lead. It requires transparency throughout the government so voters have an accurate understanding of public decisions and the results of public programs.
And one more thing.
They -- or should I say “we”-- need to vote.