LOS ANGELES — California’s primary, moved up by months and with a massive delegates haul, is expected to play a critical role in picking a Democratic presidential nominee Tuesday.
But the earlier date isn’t the only change. Voters in Los Angeles and several other counties must figure how and where to vote.
The Golden State joins 14 other states and territories in taking part in Super Tuesday, where its 415 pledged delegates will make up 30 percent of the haul awarded on the pivotal primary day. In some past elections, Californians had to wait until June, an election date so late in the primary season that it often rendered the contest meaningless in picking a presidential nominee.
This time, Californians are weighing in days after former Vice President Joe Biden’s decisive win in South Carolina, which hurt the early momentum of progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. A recent Monmouth University poll showed Californians preferring Sanders with about 24% of likely voters, followed by Biden with 17% and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg with 10%. But after the South Carolina contest, Californians’ sentiments could change by Tuesday.
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With the chance to vote earlier come myriad voting changes in California. In Los Angeles County, one of the nation’s most populous when it comes to registered voters, the number of polling places is being sharply reduced — from about 4,500 to 976. And fancy new balloting machines could lead to confusion or a slowdown as voters learn to use them.
A voter prepares her ballot in a voting booth during early voting for the California presidential primary election at a new L.A. County Mobile Vote CenterMario Tama, Getty Images
Some fear the new machines could even influence which candidate a voter selects.
“It could be an ugly, ugly Tuesday,” said Frederic Woocher, an attorney who filed suit earlier this year on behalf of the city of Beverly Hills over the design of the machines, with some candidates fearing voters may not see their names on the long list of options.
President Donald Trump, as a shoo-in on the Republican ballot, need not worry. Democrats, however, will be voting in a hotly contested primary in which no candidate yet has a lock on the nomination. Twenty candidates are on the Democratic ballot, including several who have already dropped out.
Besides the presidential contest, the most memorable thing about this year’s California primary will be the new voting protocols, starting with a more aggressive vote-by-mail campaign in several counties.
“The California presidential primary may be on Super Tuesday, but for millions of Californians, it’s really Super February,” said Secretary of State Alex Padilla in a statement.
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Instead of having to request a vote-by-mail ballot, those registered in 14 California counties, including populous ones like Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Clara and Orange, are automatically receiving a ballot.
The biggest changes are coming in Los Angeles County, home to 5.4 million registered voters — more than the population of 42 states, according to Mike Sanchez, spokesman for the county registrar-recorder’s office.
It’s yet to be seen whether the more than 75% reduction in polling places results in long lines Tuesday. Along with voting by mail, people can cast their ballots early, in-person: More than 43,000 ballots had been cast at the centers through Friday afternoon, Sanchez said.
The remaining voters will have to see if their voting location has changed and, if they wait until Tuesday, face the specter of lines to vote.
A voter prepares her ballot in a voting booth during early voting for the California presidential primary election at a new L.A. County Mobile Vote Center outside Universal Studios HollywoodMario Tama, Getty Images
“Despite substantial efforts to inform the electorate of new voting centers, no doubt some voters will be surprised to find their local precincts closed on Election Day,” said Jeff Lewis, a political science professor at the University of California Los Angeles.
Officials believe fewer polling stations are required not just because of early voting, but also because more people are casting ballots by mail. Statewide, some 67.7% of ballots cast in the 2018 primary elections arrived by mail, compared to 25.3% in 1998, figures show.
The county also had to find locations where, unlike some home garages that used to serve as neighborhood polling sites, they would be able to have electricity for the new voting machines. The machines can support 13 languages and allow the type size to be enlarged, but some are concerned that they will lead to confusion.
In its lawsuit against the county, the city of Beverly Hills contends the machines have a design flaw. Their digital readout can only display four candidates or other voting choices at a time. For more, voters need to hit a “more” button to view the following page.
Attorney Woocher said the court agreed with the county that there wasn’t enough time to make changes in the system in time for the March primary, so the issue remains.
It’s drawn the attention of candidates like U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Jimmy Gomez, both Los Angeles-area Democrats, who tweeted concerns that voters may not be able to find their names on the ballot.
At one vote center at a recreation center near the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles, voters weren’t exactly rushing to cast ballots. Only one had voted in person by 10:30 a.m. Thursday, followed by 19 all of Wednesday, though workers there were expecting the pace to pick up on the weekend. Others dropped off completed ballots.
“People don’t know you can vote over 11 days,” said Chrissy Clark, among those staffing the station. To help get out the word at a high school, she said her daughter covered her backpack in “I voted” stickers.
The changes result from passage of a state law, the Voter’s Choice Act, in 2016.
In formulating the new system, California officials visited Colorado, which has been a leader in early voting and mailing ballots in advance to all voters, said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote At Home Institute and former director of elections in Denver. Utah, Washington and Oregon have also had extended voting periods and extensive vote-at-home efforts. All, McReynolds said, have seen higher voter participation levels.
She said, too, that increased voter participation did not appear to impact results. She noted that in a Colorado general election in 2014, the Democratic governor was reelected but the incumbent Democratic senator was turned out of office. The split “kind of shows it doesn’t help one side or the other,” she said.
Voters prepare their ballots in voting booths during early voting for the California presidential primary election at a new L.A. County Mobile Vote CenterMario Tama, Getty Images
Not all agree early voting helps turnout. A 2013 study conducted by four University of Wisconsin researchers and published in the American Journal of Political Science asserts that early voting by itself suppresses turnout because it reduces the significance of the election and provides less of an incentive for campaigns to get voters to the polls.
But early voting has become popular, said Trey Hood, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, because of the flexibility it affords people with busy lives at home and at work.
The system, however, stands the best chance of working when voters are fully informed of the changes.
“Early voting can certainly make things easier for those who want to vote, but removing Election Day polling places can cause some problems,” said Michael Hanmer, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “The information campaign from election officials about early voting and how the candidates and parties mobilize supporters will matter a great deal.”
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