California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis
This election season five California counties are doing away with hundreds of neighborhood polling places and replacing them with fewer “one-stop vote centers”—an experiment sold by Democrats as a way to save money and boost anemic voter turnout from the last mid-term elections.
The 2016 Voter’s Choice Act establishes the vote centers in Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo. Like traditional polling places, the centers will be located mostly in churches, firehouses, high schools and other community buildings. The difference: Voters will be able to do all things voter-related at any center in their county.
“This is the single biggest change we’ve seen in our elections in California,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project, a non-partisan research group.
People will be able to not only vote in-person or drop off their ballots, but also pick up replacement ballots and make use of language assistance and translated materials. Crucially, they’ll also be able to register to vote on the spot—without the inconvenience of having to make what would otherwise be a required trip to the county registrar’s office to do so.
Here’s how it will work: Every registered voter in these five counties will automatically receive a ballot in the mail, which they can either return by mail, place in one of the many drop boxes in spots such as libraries and courthouses around the county, or take to any county vote center (including one near their work or along their daily commute.) And they’ll be able cast their ballots in-person up to 10 days before the election, or in a dropbox up to 28 days prior to election day. These voters can wave goodbye to polling place restrictions and to voting alongside their neighbors.
The vote center model is new. However, vote-by-mail-only elections have happened in some California counties before.
San Mateo and Yolo counties did a trial run in their local elections, mailing ballots to every registered voter in the county. It was a part of a pilot program the Legislature authorized in 2014 (San Mateo) and 2009 (Yolo). Results were mixed: San Mateo saw an increase in voter turnout and no change in the overall election cost. Yolo saw no significant boost in turnout, but saved money.
Alpine, Sierra, and Plumas, all rural counties, were given special permission to adopt a vote-by-mail-only system. Plumas County introduced vote-by-mail for all in the 2016 primary election.
“We are really big geographically, but small in population,” said Kathy Williams, registrar of voters in Plumas County. “It was difficult for voters living in further parts of the county to get in and drive to polling places….We send everyone a ballot and we provide postage both ways.”
Many Californians who haven’t participated in an all-vote-by-mail election seem leery of the changes. A survey by the Engagement Project found that 61 percent of Californians don’t like the idea of vote centers replacing neighborhood polling places. Voters expressed concerns about everything from driving times to the vote centers, to trusting that their ballots will be delivered and counted.
So why the change?
Turnout in the last mid-term, in 2014, dipped to a mere 42 percent of registered voters. Nearly a third of registered voters who said they did not always vote cited time or schedule constraints as the reason, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California. “There was a reaction to really low numbers in 2014,” said Romero. “That was the driving reason people wanted to take action—that coupled with the example coming out of Colorado.”
In Colorado’s 2014 elections, the state sent every registered voter a ballot by mail, eliminated assigned polling places and established vote centers where any voter in a county could cast a ballot. The new voting system saved Colorado money, but the state did not see a significant increase in voter participation.
California’s law is similar to Colorado’s, with one obvious difference: Here, counties were not required to switch to vote centers. California allowed 14 counties to try the vote center model for this year’s election, but only five opted to do that.
Whether it will work hinges on aggressive outreach and education, Romero said. “Counties have to make sure voters feel comfortable and trust the process.”
In the last statewide election, 58 percent of Californians who voted cast ballots by mail—a percentage experts expect to only increase, which is why the state foresees fewer people using neighborhood polling places.
“Even if there’s an appearance that we’re providing less locations to voters, we’re actually extending the number of days that they can go vote in-person,” said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar for Sacramento County. “In a polling place model, you are assigned a polling place. In the vote center model, the voter picks what works for them.”
As the largest county to implement the vote center model, there’s a lot riding on Sacramento County. It’s converting from 548 polling places to 78 vote centers (73 of which have been identified and listed on the county’s website.)
Will voters know where to go, what to expect? Will the lines be DMV-like? Will voting increase?
Other counties throughout the state will be watching closely—in the 2020 election, every county except Los Angeles may opt to switch to mailing ballots to all registered voters, and they all can replace polling places with vote centers.
This afternoon, the California Supreme Court ruled that a proposal to divide the state in three cannot be placed on the November ballot.
Though the “Three Californias” initiative gathered over 450,000 verified signatures, initially qualifying as “Proposition 9,” its place on the ballot was contested by the Planning and Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental organization. The group argued that trisecting the state would substantially “revise” the California Constitution, rather than simply “amend” it.
Voters can only amend the constitution via ballot propositions. Revisions—sweeping changes to the structure or function of government—require two-thirds approval of both the state Assembly and Senate before being placed on the ballot.
The Court did not take a side in that debate but agreed to take the proposition off of this year’s ballot while the question is resolved.
“Because significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition’s validity, and because we conclude that the potential harm in permitting the measure to remain on the ballot outweighs the potential harm in delaying the proposition to a future election…(the Secretary of State) is directed to refrain from placing Proposition 9 on the November 6, 2018, ballot,” the court wrote.
The decision throws another wrench into Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper’s latest effort to chop up the Golden State into more manageable sized pieces. Draper also funded a “Six Californias” initiative for the 2014 ballot.
“Apparently, the insiders are in cahoots and the establishment doesn’t want to find out how many people don’t like the way California is being governed,” Draper said in an email. “Whether you agree or not with this initiative, this is not the way democracies are supposed to work. This kind of corruption is what happens in third world countries.”
Draper has argued that California has grown too large and economically diverse to be effectively governed.
“The citizens of the whole state would be better served by three smaller state governments,” read the text of the most recent measure.
“Proposition 9 was a costly, flawed scheme that will waste billions of California taxpayer dollars, create chaos in public services including safeguarding our environment and literally eliminate the State of California – all to satisfy the whims of one billionaire,” Planning and Conservation League’s executive director Howard Penn said in a press release.
The court gave Draper 30 days to make his case for why the Three Californias proposal is a constitutional use of the initiative process. But even if he persuades the court, the earliest it could appear on regular statewide ballot is 2020.
In his race against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, state Sen. Kevin de León failed to submit his latest campaign finance statements online, limiting the ability of Californians to see those reports for days if not weeks after they arrive by mail in Washington, D.C.
Feinstein filed her latest report with Federal Elections Commission on Friday electronically, as she generally does. Many other senators, including Kamala Harris, also file their reports electronically. De León mailed his.
Tradition dies hard: Senate rules do not require that candidates file electronic versions of their campaign statements, which detail who gives them money and how they spend it.
Instead, they can use “snail mail” to send paper copies, which can run thousands of pages, to the Senate office. U.S. House of Representative candidates must file their campaign statements online, as do state candidates.
The Federal Elections Commission retrieves paper copies from the Senate and hires contractors to key in the data into computers so the reports can be placed online. I described the cumbersome process in this 2007 article.
Feinstein promised back then to work to change the rules: “It’s time to bring the Senate into the modern era.”
Not much has changed.
An aide to de León said the state senator doesn’t rule out filing online in the future.
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s campaign strategist: “People who don’t file online don’t want people to know what their numbers are.”
A 152-mile long canal that irrigates pistachios and other crops in the eastern San Joaquin Valley is sinking by an inch a month, the result of groundwater over-pumping by farmers.
The Sacramento Bee described the Friant-Kern Canal as an engineering marvel, but its capacity has been reduced by as much as 60 percent at because of subsidence.
The Bee: “Now it’s reaching a crisis point on the Friant-Kern, and California voters are being asked to fix it”
Proposition 3, an $8.9 billion water bond on the November ballot, would set aside $750 million to repair the canal, and additional sums to avert subsidence. Gerald Meral, a former water policy advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown, wrote the initiative.
Business groups and farmers, many of them seeking canal improvements, donated $1.75 million of the $2.75 million Meral raised for the initiative so far. Environmental groups attracted by the measure’s promise of billions for habitat restoration have given $1 million.
Some specifics: LA River $150 million; Salton Sea and San Francisco Bay wetlands restoration $200 million each; clean drinking water and water quality $3 billion.
Meral: “The state can’t continue to underinvest in water. We have people who don’t have adequate water supplies. It is a human rights problem.”
Opposition: Sierra Club warns Proposition 3 could be used to “fund dam projects that are harmful to the environment.” So far, there’s no funding for an opposition campaign.
P.S. Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox supports Proposition 3, telling CALmatters in a statement that it offers “the opportunity to build dramatically more storage and provide clean water.” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom has not taken a stand.