The California Legislature recently sent a package of election reforms known as SB 450, or the Vote Center Model, to Gov. Jerry Brown for his consideration. This legislation, based on a model recently implemented in Colorado, aims to increase voter turnout in California while also reducing the cost of running elections. New research released today by the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change finds that African American voters in California have many concerns about this significant change to the state’s election system. The findings suggest that it will be necessary for state election officials to offer extensive outreach and communication in order to make this new model accessible and welcoming, and to overcome the deeply held concerns expressed by African American voters regarding vote centers.
As part of the California Voter Experience Study, the CCEP recently conducted focus groups with African American voters (with a range in age, income, education, gender, ballot type use and voting frequency) in Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles. “While some African American voters we spoke with were open to possibly using vote centers, a majority of participants expressed strong concerns about the intentions behind the proposed Vote Center Model, including concerns about voter suppression and voting access,” said CCEP Director Mindy Romero. “Voters cited the significant history of voter suppression of African Americans in the U.S., including ongoing attempts to enact voter ID laws around the country. Many were immediately concerned about reducing the number of polling places, citing this aspect of the Vote Center Model as a possible step to reduce access to voting for African Americans.“
When asked for their perspective on this proposed change, the following are the most common responses from African American voters:
- Strong concerns over the motives for this possible change to California’s election system.
- Concerns there will be long lines, large crowds, and an unpleasant bureaucratic experience similar to what people had experienced at the DMV or other government agencies.
- Concerns vote centers might be prohibitively far away for many voters. Very few voters were willing to travel more than 5 to 20 minutes to use a vote center.
“How is this supposed to increase the amount of people who are voting? I don’t see how making less voting centers and making them farther away would help,” said one voter. “I live down the street from the school where I vote. I don’t see a person who doesn’t already vote going a farther way to vote than their neighborhood polling location.”
“I see it as a further disenfranchisement of our communities,” said another voter. “I like being able to see families, see people; you are taking them out of their community, which lessens the chances that they will even know what their community issues are. So if you are taking me from where I am at […] I’m not even getting a chance to discuss with my neighbors because I may not run into my neighbors, which is something that happens at the polling sites. You run into your neighbors and they say do you know anything about this proposition […] you lose that. It bothers me that we are removing it from community. I’d be concerned with who is behind it and why do they want this.”
Across African American demographic groups, the most commonly shared reasons for voting in person were:
- Lack of confidence that their mailed ballot would be counted.
- A desire to be seen representing the African American community when voting.
- Following a family or community tradition of voting in person.
- A desire to enjoy the social aspects of voting in person.
- A desire to set a positive example for their children by taking them to vote, and for others by displaying their “I Voted” sticker.
CCEP vote center recommendations
CCEP research suggests that other African American voters in California may react negatively to the proposed election changes, finding this change perplexing, and possibly suspecting exclusionary or discriminatory motives behind the reduction in polling places. Based on the findings from these and other voter focus groups, the CCEP offers several recommendations, including:
- County election officials should work with community advocates to develop implementation and outreach plans specifically targeted to the concerns expressed by African Americans and other underrepresented groups.
- The state of California should provide appropriate funding for county election offices to be able to effectively implement the proposed new voting model.
- To the extent possible, the adoption of a new Vote Center Model should be uniform across the state’s counties.
- In regions without uniform adoption of the Vote Center Model, robust voter education should occur to indicate which counties are using the model, particularly where the close proximity of counties could lead to voter confusion regarding the Vote Center Model.
- Ongoing community dialogue with African American voters and other historically underrepresented groups should be conducted to gather feedback on how the Vote Center Model is being experienced at the community level from the planning stages onward.
- The state of California should provide appropriate funding for state- and county-level outreach programs.
- State and county outreach programs should be evaluated in order to measure their impact on voter awareness and turnout, especially for African Americans and other historically underrepresented groups.