Foon Rhee

A roadmap to improve California’s elections

Voters wait in line at City Hall in San Francisco on June 7. A new study faults how elections are administered in California, but Secretary of State Alex Padilla says reforms will mean improvements.
Voters wait in line at City Hall in San Francisco on June 7. A new study faults how elections are administered in California, but Secretary of State Alex Padilla says reforms will mean improvements. Associated Press

Unlike voter ID laws and other nefarious doings in some states, California officials don’t try to put up roadblocks to voting. But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect in how elections are run.

Far from it, according to a new study out this week. California ranks No. 50 – ahead of only Alabama – in how well it administers elections, says the Pew Charitable Trusts’ comprehensive Elections Performance Index.

California’s average score of 54 percent actually increased by 9 percentage points between the 2010 and 2014 elections, but other states improved far more, so its ranking went down from No. 49.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla says that since he took over as California’s top elections administrator in January 2015, he has pushed a series of reforms that directly address the shortcomings highlighted in the study.

“We are on the right track,” Padilla said in a statement. “We see the Pew index as a road map for improving the administration of our elections.”

Indeed, it’s possible, even likely, that California’s score and ranking for the 2016 election will improve and will continue to do so going forward.

Starting Jan. 1, people can register and vote the same day, which should reduce the number of provisional ballots. Starting next summer, every eligible voter will be automatically registered at DMV unless they opt out. And a major measure Padilla sponsored to modernize elections, Senate Bill 450, is still alive in the Legislature, after surviving the Assembly Appropriations Committee culling on Thursday.

The bill, authored by Democratic Sens. Ben Allen of Santa Monica and Bob Hertzberg of Los Angeles, would send all voters a mail ballot – about 60 percent now vote by mail – that they could mail back, drop off at centralized voting centers or use to vote in person. There would be one vote center for every 10,000 registered voters on Election Day and the three preceding days, but there would be fewer traditional polling places.

In addition, Padilla’s office is completing VoteCal, a new registration database that will help voters go online to, among other things, find out if their mail or provisional ballot was counted and if not, why not.

Better technology, including online voter registration, also boosted the national average score by 5.1 percentage points from 2010 to 2014. Forty states plus the District of Columbia improved their scores.

Scores are based on 17 different measures, including the voter registration rate, turnout rate, wait times at polling places and access for disabled voters. The index also tracks how many mail ballots are not returned or are rejected, how many provisional ballots are cast on Election Day and aren’t counted, and how many voter registration problems there are. While it’s wide-ranging, the index doesn’t measure the accuracy of voter lists or of vote counts.

Of California’s scores, it ranked best in voting wait time and access for disabled voters, but worst in the rates of unreturned mail, military and overseas ballots.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill supported by Padilla that allows visually-impaired voters and those with other disabilities to receive vote-by-mail ballots electronically so they can vote in secret, print out the ballot and mail it back.

Step by step, California is making it as easy as possible for eligible voters to have their say. But there’s work to do.

By the numbers

California’s score and national ranking for 2014 on selected measures of how well elections are run:

  • Disabled voting problems: 10.2%, No. 16
  • Mail ballots unreturned: 49.5%, No. 49
  • Military, overseas ballots unreturned: 83.7%, No. 47
  • Provisional ballots rejected: 0.55%, No. 39
  • Registration or absentee ballot problems: 4.2%, No. 43
  • Voter turnout: 30.8%, No. 43
  • Voter registration rate: 74.1%, No. 42
  • Voting wait time: 2.1 minutes, No. 10
  • Overall: 54%, No. 50

Source: Elections Performance Index