Officials seek ways to boost L.A. County's voter turnout

Automatic registration is seen as one way to increase voter participation in L.A. County

After abysmal voter participation in California's last election and in Los Angeles County in particular, some state officials want to follow in the footsteps of Oregon and look into creating an automatic voter registration system.

Proponents say creating a system that automatically signs up eligible voters instead of requiring them to take the initiative would remove a major barrier to participation and free up resources that could be spent on getting more people interested in voting.

That proposal came up Friday at a joint legislative hearing in Los Angeles that focused on increasing voter turnout in Los Angeles County. The county is the largest in the nation and has 4.8 million registered voters. But its turnout was the lowest in the state in last November's general election. Statewide turnout of registered voters was 42%, but in Los Angeles County only 31% of registered voters cast ballots. Turnout was particularly low among Latino registered voters, at only 23%, and Asian and black voters, at 26%, according to a report by the bipartisan firm Political Data Inc.

The number of people eligible to vote — citizens 18 and older — who cast ballots was even lower: 31% statewide and 25% in Los Angeles County.

"Los Angeles is a critical piece of the state's economic, cultural, social and socioeconomic life," Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), head of the Senate Elections Committee, said after the hearing. "If Los Angeles is not properly represented though our democratic process, the whole state loses."

Other officials echoed the concerns.

"If you look at the numbers, not just in 2014 but in the past several cycles, then one could say that our democracy is weak," said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, said the voting population is "not at all representative of the diversity that is California."

Academics and community organizers floated a number of potential remedies: increase the amount of money the state gives to counties for voter outreach, expand early voting and create dispersed "community voting centers" to replace assigned polling places, do more targeted outreach to ethnic communities and infrequent voters who are often overlooked by political campaigns — even require people to vote, like Australia. They also debated the pros and cons of a proposed charter amendment on the city of Los Angeles' March 3 ballot that would move city and Los Angeles Unified school board elections from odd- to even-numbered years, consolidating the elections with races for state and federal office.

The idea of automatic registration resurfaced throughout the hearing. Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., noted that the United States is one of the only democracies in which people are required to register on their own.

Oregon may become the first U.S. state to make the switch. Lawmakers there are moving toward creating a registration system that would use driver's license records to automatically sign up eligible residents. The proposal passed the state's House on Friday.

Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan said, "I'm hopeful that it passes in Oregon so we can have a chance to learn from it." Such a system could lead to cost savings on voter registration, he said. The registrar's budget for voter registration, education and outreach is $10.7 million, but only $250,000 of that goes to outreach.

Allen said the concept of automatic registration will be discussed further at another committee hearing on voter turnout next month, and could become part of a bill. The details remain to be worked out, he said, but "obviously there's a lot of interest in it."

Others were more wary. California Republican Party spokeswoman Kaitlyn MacGregor said party officials questioned the need for automatic registration. "We really think that voter registration is pretty easy and easily available in California," she said.

And Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials cautioned that if such a system were implemented, officials would have to be careful that it did not result in registering people who are not citizens, who might vote and then later face repercussions.

Los Angeles County is in the beginning stages of a multimillion-dollar overhaul of its own voting system. County supervisors in October approved a $15-million contract with Palo Alto consultant Ideo to design new touch-screen ballot-marking machines. Logan said the modernized voting system would probably involve giving voters more options about when and where to vote.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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