The California state Legislature is in the process of considering a package of election reforms known as SB 450, or the Vote Center Model. This legislation, based on a model that was recently implemented in Colorado, is aimed at increasing voter turnout in the Golden State. However, new research released today by the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, Center for Regional Change, suggests that targeted education and outreach efforts and thoughtful implementation will be necessary in order to ensure that the proposed changes do not turn off some voter groups or widen the electoral participation gap.
“While the Vote Center Model has been well received in Colorado, California’s unique demographic and geographic diversity means we need to carefully consider how to adopt this model in a way that best serves California voters and those who could be brought into the electorate in the future,” said CCEP Director Mindy Romero. “California turnout is often very low. Nearly 70 percent of Californians did not vote in the 2014 general election. Millennials, Latinos and Asian-Americans are particularly underrepresented in our electorate. This research is designed to inform discussion and decision-making with a goal of achieving more robust and representative elections.”
Who is using vote-by-mail?
A majority of California voters now use vote-by-mail, or VBM, ballots — 58.9 percent in the 2016 primary and over 60 percent in the 2014 general election. However, the new research shows that California’s young voters (age 18-34), Latinos and those in Los Angeles County, as a whole, use VBM at relatively low rates.
Under the proposed Vote Center Model, California polling places would be replaced with less numerous Vote Centers, which would allow early voting up to 10 days before election day, and secure ballot drop-off boxes, and every registered voter would be mailed a VBM ballot. The idea is to switch to a new voting model that reflects the growing use of VBM ballots and makes it easier for Californians to vote. After a similar model was implemented in Colorado in 2013, 93 percent of the votes cast in that state were via VBM ballots. Ninety-five percent of Colorado voters polled were satisfied with the new model of holding elections.
Careful implementation needed
This research on the disparate use of VBM ballots in California suggests that the Vote Center Model in our state could possibly widen the electoral participation gap if not carefully implemented. A series of focus groups held around the state provides insight into the concerns of voters that will need to be addressed in order to ensure that this proposed legislation achieves its intended purpose — to increase voter participation among all Californians. For instance:
- Latino voters had more initial negative reactions to the proposed change.
- Young and Latino Voters said that a welcoming atmosphere (accessible information, aesthetically pleasing decor) would influence their willingness to use a Vote Center, as well as professional staff, clear signage and good language access.
- Disabled and senior voters expressed concerns about having to travel longer distances to vote. Voters with disabilities also said more accessible voting machines would be needed to ensure private voting.
- Central Valley voters often cited concerns that lack of transportation options could make accessing Vote Centers difficult, and many rural voters strongly indicated they did not want to have to go to another town in order to vote at a Vote Center.
- L.A. voters commonly expressed concerns about travel time and distance to Vote Centers. S.F. Bay Area voters stressed the importance of Vote Centers being close to public transit, and some expressed a desire to see the model be evenly adopted across counties in a region to avoid confusion.
- Voters in general across the state worried about possible long lines and large crowds at Vote Centers, and few people said they were willing to travel more than five to 15 minutes to use one.
This new report suggests that adequately funded, targeted and sustained education and outreach efforts will be critical to ensure strong and representative voter turnout should the new Vote Center Model be adopted in California. The researchers recommend that elections officials conduct ongoing community dialogues with traditionally underrepresented groups as this model is implemented and work with community advocates to develop targeted outreach plans that address voter concerns. In addition, election reforms should be uniformly implemented across the state to avoid confusion, and county registrars need appropriate funding to achieve a smooth transition.
 Recent changes to the proposed Vote Center legislation initially exempt Los Angeles County from mailing VBM ballots to all voters.