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Will voting overhaul law help or hurt LA County voter turnout?

Juan Alonso of El Sereno votes at a polling place inside Barrio Action Youth & Family Center on Tuesday afternoon, June 7, 2016 during the California primary election. "You just have to vote. If you don't vote, then don't complain," he said.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Juan Alonso of El Sereno votes at a polling place inside Barrio Action Youth & Family Center on Tuesday afternoon, June 7, 2016, during the California primary election.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a landmark voting overhaul bill Thursday that could dramatically change future elections in California, but a little known exemption gives Los Angeles County more time to implement the law.

County officials aren't mandated to adopt the new law, but many counties are proceeding ahead. The changes are expected to roll out first in Orange County and about a dozen other counties in 2018. L.A. County is scheduled to follow two years later.

Under the legislation, county officials will have the option of closing thousands of neighborhood locations around the state. Officials can then open new polling places called "voting centers,” which along with other changes, are aimed at making casting ballots more flexible. 

Though a much smaller number of voting centers will be available — one voting center will serve every 10,000 registered voters in most places — people could vote over several days, choose where to vote and register at the last minute.

The new system means many counties that adopt the changes could see an 80 percent to 90 percent reduction in polling places. Orange County, for example, is expected to go from 1,135 polling locations used in November 2014 to just 140 vote centers in the days before and on election day. 

In most places around the state, every voter will get a ballot in the mail under the new system. But that won’t be the case in L.A. County. During the initial county rollout set to begin in 2020, permanent vote-by-mail voters or those who request mail ballots will get them, but most other voters will not. 

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who authored the bill, said education will be key in explaining the voting options. He said as an example: "For people who like to vote in person, they will receive a list of vote centers that will be available for them to go to all over town."

L.A. County, which has struggled with voter turnout numbers in past elections, has notoriously low vote-by-mail return rates compared to other counties. That is one reason the ratio for setting up voting centers will be higher in L.A. County than elsewhere — one vote center for every 7,500 registered voters, or 650 locations in total.

Critics argue that the changes could lower voter turnout.

Raúl Macías, a voting rights attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of California, said L.A. County will have about 80 percent fewer voting locations under the new law.

"For a lot of voters, the closest place to vote might be much further away from them," he said. "That could be a real problem for people who don't have a vehicle of their own."

ACLU, which was initially opposed to the measure, submitted comments on the bill to the Secretary of State's office and Allen's staff.

"We are pleased with the amendments," Macías said. "But there's still a lot of work to be done on implementation to make sure the system is accessible for all voters."