New year changes to California voter laws aim to improve elections

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If you’re like most people living in Southern California, one thing you probably didn't do in 2015 was vote. 

But there’s a shift underway in the state that could chip away at that problem: about 40 new laws on voting and elections take effect in 2016, said Neal Kelley, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials and Orange County registrar of voters.

The California changes are part of a national effort to modernize the country's voter registration system. More than half the states have taken steps to move into the digital age with improvements like online registration, according to Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

“California has really done a lot to improve the election laws,” said Weiser, who watches election reform across the nation. She said California passed more election reforms in 2015 than any other state in the country.  

Many of the state's new laws fix behind-the-scene problems, but a handful will also affect voters: "Easier opportunities to register to vote, easier to make changes to your voter registration, easier to get your vote by mail ballot tracked and counted," Kelley said.

Another new law will make California's Voter Bill of Rights easier to understand. Still another will help people with disabilities to vote, even if they are under someone else’s care.

Plus, there's the big one that made national headlines this year: California’s Motor Voter Act.

The new law took effect Jan. 1 and could begin rolling out at the end of the year. It will automate voter registration when drivers visit the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you apply for or renew a driver’s license, for example, you’ll be registered to vote unless you opt out.

Those who follow election reform, including Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said with more than 6 million eligible citizens in California who aren't registered to vote, the DMV law is a game changer. 

"You know, one of the reasons people aren’t registered to vote is because they’re never invited to register to vote," Alexander said.

Kelley said voting behaviors have changed dramatically in recent years. As the registrar of voters in Orange County for about a decade, Kelley watched voters slip away from the polls.

"In Orange County, we operate 1,300 polling places. Traffic at those polling places has been down as much as 62 percent over the last 10 years," he said, although adding that many voters in his area have switched to mail-in ballots. 

California ranks in the bottom third of voter registration nationally; some argue the state's registration problem is one of the biggest hurdles to increasing voter turnout. Los Angeles County made news in the November 2014 election when it recorded the lowest turnout in the state. 

Alexander said the latest laws will bring about important changes, including who could be drawn into the election process.

"If we leave it up to the political parties to decide who to reach out to, then they are not going to reach out to people who are younger, or not as likely to vote, or people who are lower income," she said.

Kelley said the most visible change to voting may be coming soon. A bill making its way through the state legislature would allow counties to create voting centers and allow people to vote over multiple days. 

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