If you’re voting next week in a neighborhood garage or the clubhouse of a park or a school auditorium, you may want to remember the experience well. It might not be repeated often after this primary election and November’s general election.
Already, Californians in five counties (Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo) are pioneering the new experience that will almost certainly come to voters in most other counties two years from now.
The new election system features “vote centers” rather than precincts and a big expansion of mail balloting.
The aim is to expand turnout by making things far easier for voters. It’s the complete opposite of the vote-suppression efforts Republicans push in many other states where mail balloting has been made more difficult and identification is often required before voters so much as touch a ballot.
After low turnout disappointed California officials in 2014 (25 percent of registered voters) and in the off-year elections of 2013 and 2015, they began casting about for changes. The new system will deliver mail-in ballots to every registered voter about 28 days before each actual Election Day, aiming to end any need for voting in a single place on just one day.
Each county will also have several large vote centers, where anyone registered to vote in that county can cast a ballot regardless of home address. Computers will ensure each voter at the centers gets exactly the same local ballot he or she would have seen in the former polling places. It will also be possible to turn in mail ballots at vote centers, just as it’s possible now in most counties to turn them in at precinct polling places.
The same safeguards as ever will be taken to ensure that voters don’t cast multiple ballots. Each mail-in vote will have the signature on its envelope checked against registration forms. Every voter will have to provide a valid address to get a ballot in vote centers just like in the old polling places.
And yet, losing candidates and those who expect to lose will surely find fodder in this new system for crying “rigged election.” Just as before, there is nothing to prevent voters or groups they’re affiliated with from holding ballot-marking parties where they might receive instructions or guidance in how to vote. But they’d presumably be at such gatherings under their own volition.
The hope behind the new system is that putting ballots in the hands of every registered voter will up the turnout substantially.
“We’ve got to … implement a new voting method,” Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica said while sponsoring the new system in the Legislature last year. “Our current system has failed, as our voter turnout rates continued to decline toward record lows.”
If that meant the tradition of the secret ballot had to go, then the legislators who passed it and the men who signed it and are putting it into action (Gov. Jerry Brown and Secretary of State Alex Padilla) essentially said “so be it.” Of course, the secret ballot went the way of the dodo bird long ago when mail ballots became available to anyone who asked for them, starting in the late 1970s.
Since then, ballot-marking parties have been commonplace, but they’ve never led to charges of fraud or coerced voting for particular candidates or propositions. Still, such outcries may arise now.
The guinea pig voters in the five counties using the system this time will determine whether it leads to the greater flexibility and higher turnouts expected by the folks who pushed for change.
But only time will tell whether all this actually spurs more people to vote. For sure, no one knows whether the almost inevitable charges of fraud and vote-fixing will have any merit. Also for sure, participation had gotten so low in recent years that a small minority of eligible voters often has made key decisions for everyone else.
And whatever happens, bet on computers, tablets and smartphones as the next frontier in this brave new world of voting.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]