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Editorial: Rejecting proposals that make it easier for people to vote is anti-democratic

People stand in line at an early voting site in Irvine, Calif on Nov. 1, 2016.
(Sam Gangwer / Associated Press)

On this Fourth of July, when Americans are supposed to be celebrating the creation of a vibrant, enduring and inclusive democracy, forgive us if we take a moment to discuss a move in the opposite direction by the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Last month, the supervisors rejected — without any discussion or clear explanation — a proposal that would have made it easier for people to vote, and would have saved the county millions of dollars in the process.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who made the motion to kill the election reforms, told a reporter later that he was concerned about voter fraud. What kind of fraud he’s worried about, he didn’t say. His staff said last week that Spitzer would not comment further and suggested that questions be addressed to the Orange County Republican Party. All five county supervisors are Republicans and the referral to the party suggests the move might have been politically motivated.

The reform package was part of the Voter’s Choice Act, adopted by the state Legislature last year as a way to make voting easier and encourage more people to participate. Fourteen California counties, including Orange County, were invited to participate for the 2018 elections; the rest of the state becomes eligible in 2020. Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley helped craft the state law based on reforms made in Colorado and other states. Data from Colorado showed a 40% decrease in election costs for counties over three years along with a 3% increase in people voting. What’s not to love?

Under the reform proposal, the county would have sent mail ballots to every registered voter, set up ballot drop-off stations and consolidated its election day polling stations into fewer centralized voting centers that any voter could use. (Those centers would have been open for 10 days before election day, including weekends.) Kelley estimated that Orange County would have saved between $10 million and $20 million up front as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in each statewide election going forward.

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The reality is that this is the way people want to vote. For example, about 61% of Orange County’s voters have chosen permanent vote-by-mail status. Voting at the county’s 1,100 polling stations has decreased overall by 20% since 2004 — and in some places by as much as 75%. In the last two elections held in the city of Los Angeles, 62% of ballots were cast by mail.

Orange County’s rejection of the proposal might be an aberration — or a sign of things to come. It would be unfortunate if other counties take its example and also reject the Voter’s Choice Act over unfounded fears of voter fraud, of which there is little evidence, or because they believe Republican candidates benefit from depressed turnout. So far, only five of the 14 eligible counties have agreed to participate, including Sacramento and Nevada counties.

The whole state should be moving toward reform. Boosting turnout by making it easier to vote leads to a better, stronger democracy. Perhaps the Legislature was wrong to have made the Voter’s Choice Act voluntary, but frankly, most legislators assumed that counties would be glad to embrace a system that improved the voting experience, increased turnout and saved taxpayer dollars at the same time.

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