If you are a voter in Los Angeles County or Orange County, you’ve already cast the last ballot that you’ll ever hand in at a neighborhood polling place in a statewide election. California lawmakers crafted a new policy to modernize elections, shifting voters to voting by mail or at new vote centers spread throughout a county, rather than at polling places located in every neighborhood.
Passed in 2016, the Voter’s Choice Act is aimed at making voting more convenient, increasing turnout and, potentially, reducing the cost of elections. Counties can opt in if and when they choose. Five Northern California counties adopted the new system in 2018. Seven more counties, including Los Angeles and Orange, will put the new system in place for the 2020 elections.
How will it work? All registered voters will be sent a vote-by-mail ballot (although Los Angeles County will not automatically send mail-in ballots until 2024). They can then vote by mail, postage paid, thanks to another new state law, or drop ballots off at a drop box or vote center.
To cast ballots in person, voters will go to a vote center rather than a traditional polling place, and they can do this at any center in their county. At the centers, they can also register to vote as late as election day through “conditional voter registration.” The new vote centers will be open for either three or 10 days prior to an election, giving voters more flexibility about when they vote, and will be equipped with more-accessible voting machines and be able to provide language assistance.
California could be moving toward an era of more modern and more convenient elections. But something will also be lost.
But they won’t be everywhere. Instead of serving up to 1,000 registered voters, as most neighborhood polling places do, vote centers in most counties will serve an area of 50,000 registrants (for the ones open 10 days before an election) or 10,000 registrants (for vote centers open three days before an election). Los Angeles County will have more centers per voter, since it won’t initially be automatically sending mail ballots.
Will the system deliver on one of its central goals of expanding turnout? We can draw very preliminary lessons from the five counties — Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo — that adopted the new system in time for the 2018 elections. In a study that we co-authored with Laura Daly, we tracked the impact of these reforms on turnout, looking especially at the turnout of groups with traditionally low participation rates.
Studying the reform is complicated by the fact that voters turned out in last year’s election at historically huge rates. So, to gauge the impact of the Voter’s Choice Act, we compared the rise in turnout from the 2014 midterms to the 2018 midterms in the five adopting counties to the average increase in all other counties. Turnout rose sharply across the state, but it rose even more in the counties that implemented the new voting model. The increase in turnout was about three percentage points higher in the general election and about four points higher in the primary election for the adopting counties than it was in counties that had not adopted the reform.
How did the Voter’s Choice Act affect groups that have cast ballots at lower rates in the past? Although our conclusions here are more tentative — we will need more elections to study to be sure of these findings — it appears that the turnout of young voters, Latinos and Asian Americans rose more in the counties that had adopted the reform than in those that hadn’t.
We don’t know whether these initial findings are an indicator for how Los Angeles and Orange counties will experience the new model of voting. These counties are very different from the early adopters, with far larger and more diverse electorates. L.A. County alone, for example, has more registered voters than the entire populations of 28 states. And L.A. County voters use their neighborhood polling places much more than those in the northern counties that have already made the switch. In the 2016 general election, only 36% of L.A. County voters cast a ballot by mail, compared with 65% to 92% of voters in the five counties we studied.
Importantly, the version of the Voter’s Choice Act that Los Angeles will adopt in the next two election cycles is different from what any other county will put into place, since it won’t automatically send out vote-by-mail ballots but only to voters who request them. The county is putting a tremendous effort into informing voters of this change and soliciting broad input on the location of the new vote centers.
A successful implementation will also require community groups from all of L.A.’s neighborhoods to get informed about the Voter’s Choice Act and ensure they are contributing to the county’s implementation planning, as well as to public education efforts, particularly for groups historically underrepresented at the ballot box.
California could be moving toward an era of more modern and more convenient elections. But something will also be lost. Polling places located in a neighbor’s garage or a local school bring communities together and emphasize the importance of voting in our civic lives. A polling place is where many of us were introduced to democracy as children, and where some have taken our own children to show them the importance of being an engaged member of society. The changes could lead to more participation, which is a good thing, but as we move into this new voting era, we should also take a moment to remember and celebrate the polling place.
Thad Kousser is a professor of political science at UC San Diego, Eric McGhee is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and Mindy Romero is director of the California Civic Engagement Project at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. They are all part of the New Electorate Project.