Friday, June 19, 2015

California election official calls resolving competing interests in election re-vamp “a heavy lift”

California is contemplating the biggest change to how it conducts elections in several generations.  Under the provisions of SB 450, now pending in the State Assembly, traditional precinct-based polling places would be replaced with “polling centers” throughout each county to meet the needs of voters who choose not to exercise their right to cast their ballot through the mail, something that would be facilitated by counties sending mail-in ballots to all their registered voters, regardless of whether they’ve asked for one or not.

You can read SB 450 as it stands amended today here. 

A working group of stakeholders is meeting regularly in 4-hour phone conference calls to discuss how to resolve issues involving the required ratio of “polling centers” to be established in each county and who is going to pay for establishing them, the state, the counties, or some combined arrangement.

Different counties with differing demographics and geographies will have different preferences for that ratio.

All of this reformist energy stems from official recognition of, and worry about, the low and declining voter participation rates of late in California.

SB 450 is sponsored by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.  Its named Senate author is Senator Ben Allen.  Its co-author is Senator Robert M. Hertzberg.  Its principal co-author in the Assembly is Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez.

Etopia News spoke this afternoon with Neal Kelley, the Registrar of Voters of Orange County who also serves as the President of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO).

He said he was “excited about it [SB 450],” but was nevertheless “proceeding cautiously.”  He said he’d convened a stakeholder committee six weeks ago that meets regularly by phone to discuss all aspects of this legislation.  The CACEO has no official position on the bill at this time, but is collaborating with others to optimize it.  Getting everything right, he said, is “a heavy lift.”

On the closely-related subject of VoteCal, the statewide voter database that’s finally being rolled out in its Pilot phase to five counties, including Orange County, next month, Kelley said, “We’re one of the guinea pigs.”  He said he expects to go live with the system by the third week of July.

A functioning VoteCal system is a necessity if the re-vamped voting system envisioned by SB 450 is to succeed.  Asked if he thought it would be ready in time to support these proposed reforms, Kelley said, “As it stands now, I am confident it will be ready.”  He said he expected VoteCal to be operational statewide by March, 2016, well before the January 1, 2018 start date proposed in SB 450, which ought to provide ample time for any additional debugging and optimization of the statewide register.

He said he expects the bill to have a public hearing in the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee on July 1, 2015.

Complex issues of funding and technology, as well as the ratios for vote centers remain to be surfaced, discussed, and resolved by the stakeholders working group, consisting of representatives of legislators, the California Secretary of State, county election officials, and others. 

Deciding on whether and how to include social media-based promotion as part of the voter outreach contemplated by the bill is something else that remains will be decided by the stakeholders. 

Kelley concluded by asserting that “more access is a plus,” but admitted that factors other than voting accessibility, such as voter interest in the elections and their level of motivation to vote, also affect the level of voter participation.

These reforms ought to have good results “right out of the gate,” he said, but cautioned that much remained to be done in finding a formula that will work the best. 

Since public hearings are scheduled for July 1st, only twelve days away, a lot of work needs to be done to resolve all these issues before then.  That work, says Kelley, is being done “hard, fast, and heavy.”

Would Orange County opt-into the new system in January, 2018, if it were an option?  “We’d look at it pretty closely,” Kelley replied noncommittally. 


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