21st cen­tury vot­ing

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The era of the neigh­bor­hood polling place with its pa­per voter rolls and rick­ety booths isn’t quite over, but it is well on its way out in Cal­i­for­nia. No tears will be shed here: It’s high time the state en­tered the 21st cen­tury.

That’s the opin­ion of new Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla as well. Last week he un­veiled his sec­ond pro­posal to en­cour­age voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in Cal­i­for­nia: a plan to send mail-in bal­lots to ev­ery reg­is­tered voter and to en­cour­age coun­ties to set up vot­ing cen­ters for their vot­ers to use, re­gard­less of precinct, up to 10 days be­fore elec­tion day.

These may sound like in­cre­men­tal changes, but they re­flect a sig­nif­i­cant shift in think­ing about the state’s shame­fully back­ward elec­tions sys­tem. Padilla is un­der­stand­ably ea­ger to restart re­forms that his pre­de­ces­sor let lan­guish, but he must not, in his haste, place too much bur­den on the state’s 58 coun­ties too quickly.

Gear­ing up to send bal­lots to ev­ery reg­is­tered voter in time for the next gen­eral elec­tion would be a chal­lenge in and of it­self. It would be all the more daunt­ing if another of Padilla’s pro­pos­als, a “mo­tor voter” bill, passes. The bill would au­to­mat­i­cally register peo­ple to vote when they get or re­new a driver’s li­cense, adding as many as 5.8 mil­lion to Cal­i­for­nia’s vot­ing rolls.

A higher reg­is­tra­tion rate, which in­vari­ably means more peo­ple vot­ing, is a laud- able goal. So is mak­ing it more con­ve­nient and eas­ier to vote. But maybe not all at once. That’s why it’s im­por­tant that leg­is­la­tors build ad­e­quate im­ple­men­ta­tion time and re­sources into SB 450, the bill by Ben Allen (D-Santa Mon­ica) and Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) that is be­ing amended to in­clude the mail-in bal­lots and vote cen­ters.

Also, why not be bold? Although the lan­guage of the bill is not yet fi­nal­ized, Padilla said it would not re­quire that coun­ties set up vot­ing cen­ters. In­stead, he would ex­pect them even­tu­ally to be adopted vol­un­tar­ily. If Padilla thinks vot­ing cen­ters and early vot­ing are steps to­ward the fu­ture of elec­tions — and he and other elec­tions of­fi­cials do — then he should ei­ther re­quire them or build in in­cen­tives for them. If this comes with a cost to the state, well, it’s an in­vest­ment with a sub­stan­tial pay­off down the road in higher voter turnout.

Padilla’s pro­pos­als are based on re­forms in Colorado that have had great suc­cess in the last decade. Vot­ing turnout surged from 48.5% in 2006 to 56.9% in 2014 — one of the high­est rates in the na­tion. Cal­i­for­nia, by con­trast, hit a near-record low last year, with just 30.9% of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers turn­ing out.

Elec­tion of­fi­cials and vot­ing ad­vo­cates agree that this dis­mal trend can’t con­tinue. So ku­dos to Padilla for want­ing to mod­ern­iz­ing the state’s out-of-date elec­tions sys­tem, with just one caveat: Don’t rush it.

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