Since my appointment as chair of the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments in January, I have been exploring legislative solutions to California’s unacceptably low rate of voter participation.
Toward that end my committee has held three lengthy oversight hearings where we heard from voting rights advocates, voter outreach groups, state and local elections officials, academia, political researchers, and political reformers.
In addition to those oversight hearings, both my staff and I have held numerous private meetings, read dozens of reports, and researched the most cutting edge domestic and international methods for encouraging voter engagement.
As part of that research I also traveled to Denver, Colorado in April where I was able to explore in detail their groundbreaking and very successful election system.
Colorado conducts its state and federal elections by all-mail ballot but unlike the other two all-mail states, Washington and Oregon, voters in Colorado also have the option of using numerous drop-off locations and innovative voter service polling centers.
In lieu of traditional neighborhood polling places these “vote centers” are placed in convenient locations all over town and open 8-14 days prior to each election. Furthermore, voters can use any vote center in their home county -- they are not limited to using the one closest to their house. Pretty soon, Coloradans may be able to vote anywhere in the state.
At the vote centers, voters can register and vote or get a new ballot if they lost their mail ballot. They are also equipped with accessible voting machines for disabled voters, ballot on demand printing systems, and electronic poll books that interact with the statewide voter database.
Fully implemented for the 2014 elections, this hybrid system resulted in Colorado achieving one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation.
I believe replicating aspects of the Colorado system in California may offer us the best opportunity to significantly increase voter participation while accommodating the unique needs of our very diverse electorate. It will also save participating counties money.
The essence of the Colorado system is that voters may choose to vote at home using their mail ballot or visit any of the several vote centers within their county when it is convenient for them -- whether that is on election day itself or any of the days leading up to it, including weekends.
I am authoring two bills that will make this goal a reality in California. SB 450 will soon be amended to enact an all-mail, vote center system that counties could adopt over our current polling place system.
Another bill, SB 439 would establish an approval process for ballot on demand printing systems and electronic poll books which will make the vote centers that much more convenient.
In order to fine tune this system to meet the needs of California diverse electorate, we will ensure that our vote centers must be staffed with bilingual poll workers wherever needed. We will also require them to be located near established public transportation routes.
Additionally, this legislation will include components to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all our voters including voter education, assistance, outreach, notifications, and participation of community advisory groups.
Are California voters ready for such a significant change? I believe they are.
A majority of our voters are already casting ballots by mail. During the November, 2014 General Election over 60 percent of all voters statewide used a vote by mail ballot.
I think it is safe to say that we will probably never see another election in California where more voters go to the polls than vote by mail.
Furthermore, a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 70 percent of California adults favor sending every registered voter a vote-by-mail ballot.
I am confident that California voters will embrace this system and turnout will rise accordingly. I look forward to continuing to work with Secretary of State Padilla and my colleagues in the Legislature to address this crisis of civic participation and ensure a more vital, engaged democracy for California.