How We Vote In LA Is About To Change. Here's How To Make Your Opinion Known
By Emily Elena Dugdale and Mary Plummer
In case you hadn't already heard, L.A. County residents won't be voting at neighborhood polling locations much longer.
Back in 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a major voting overhaul into law aimed at updating aging and outdated voting systems across the state. The changes, which are being rolled out by counties that opt in, include doing away with traditional polling places and replacing them with something called voting centers.
Don't panic. There's still some time before this happens. L.A. County will make the shift for the presidential primary in March of 2020. County officials are holding dozens of meetings across the region to try and educate voters on the changes ahead.
What's going to happen? Many local polling places will be replaced by voting centers where eligible voters can cast their ballot regardless of where they live. The centers will be open for 11 days, and feature new voting equipment and extra services like voter registration.
Some critics worry the changes could hurt voter participation -- under the plan a few thousand neighborhood polling locations will close and be replaced with a much smaller number of voting centers. L.A. County Registrar of Voters Dean Logan told KPCC/LAist in an interview last October that in 2020, the number of polling locations would be cut by about 75 percent.
Over 30 community meetings have taken place so far during county officials' first outreach phase to help determine where the new voting centers should be located. They're now running a second series of meetings aimed at getting input on a list of potential vote center locations and educating residents on the upcoming changes -- there are 26 meetings left.
Michael Sanchez, a spokesperson with the L.A. County Registrar, said in an email that meeting attendance has varied from as few as 15 people to as many as 80.
"Timing and location plays a role, but overall we're seeing a healthy turnout," he said.
A community meeting held Friday at the United Cerebral Palsy Center in Culver City focused on how the new changes may affect voters with disabilities.
White vans with ramps helped unload community members who told stories of accessibility issues they'd encountered when trying to access their local polling places. Nearly 50 people filled the room -- and there were more motorized wheelchairs than folding chairs.
Most wanted to know how the new voting system will work for them.
Kim Hudson, a social worker with Cerebral Palsy, said her assigned polling place is at a local middle school, but she hasn't been able to cast a ballot there.
"The auditorium was inaccessible, so I could never go to my own polling place," she said.
Hudson was one of many meeting participants who called for the new voting centers to be designed inside and out with disabilities in mind.
Yael Hagen uses a wheelchair and said building accessible spaces means you have to think beyond just making sure a building doesn't have steps.
"When thinking about accessibility, would somebody really think about privacy?" she said. "Or where they would go, or where would they sit?"
County officials said they're gathering feedback to make the voting centers accessible to everyone. They're looking at making sure buildings can accommodate wheelchairs, and that the technology for new voting devices is user-friendly for voters with movement limitations as well as visual and hearing impairments.
Hudson said she welcomes the change.
"I'm really excited that hopefully, for the first time in a long time, I'll be able to go to my polling place and vote as a part of my community," she said.
The County is organizing a mock election Sept. 28 and 29 to test out the new voting devices with the public for the first time. A pilot launch of the new system will take place during elections in November.
The new voting technology must pass a state certification process in December.
Interested in attending an upcoming community meeting in L.A. County? Here's a list.
Where else in California is this happening?
Counties are not required to make the switch to voting centers.
Officials in 12 counties across the state have signed on for 2020. The counties are: Amador, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Madera, Mariposa, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Sacramento, San Mateo and Santa Clara.
"This is a heavy lift. There is a tremendous amount of work ahead," said Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley. "Voters have been voting in Orange County the same way for decades."
Kelley described the upcoming changes as exciting but challenging.
On Friday at the Irvine Civic Center, Kelley was joined by Secretary of State Alex Padilla to announce a community workshop outreach program to help Orange County voters learn about the upcoming changes.
In Orange County, every registered voter will automatically receive a vote by mail ballot as part of the shift. In 2020, that won't be the case for L.A. County voters. During the initial rollout voters in L.A. County will need to proactively request a mail ballot if they want to vote by mail -- voters who previously signed up as permanent vote by mail voters will still receive ballots in the mail.
(To sign up to vote by mail in L.A. County go here.)
Brianna Flores contributed reporting.