More changes ahead for California voters in 2017

FILE PHOTO: Maryjane Medina, 18, a first-time voter, walks up to a polling booth to cast her vote at a polling station in Los Angeles, California.
FILE PHOTO: Maryjane Medina, 18, a first-time voter, walks up to a polling booth to cast her vote at a polling station in Los Angeles, California.
Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

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Starting Jan. 1, 16 and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote before they begin casting ballots at age 18. It's just one of several changes to voter laws in the new year that aim to encourage citizen engagement and make voting more efficient.

The first of the year also will see another law take effect that allows voters to head to their county’s election office on Election Day to register and vote. Currently, voters need to register about two weeks before the primary and general elections.

"This creates a fail-safe for people who missed the 15 day deadline and still want to vote," said Kim Alexander, the California Voter Foundation's founder and president. 

Lawmakers passed the new same-day registration law in 2012, but it was placed on hold until the state certified the California voter registration database known as VoteCal. VoteCal was certified in the fall, so same-day registration — already in place in other states to boost voter participation — can now go forward.

Also this year, tens of thousands of felons convicted of low-level crimes will have their voting rights restored. The new law gives those in county jails the chance to vote. Those in state or federal prisons remain ineligible. The bill faced strong opposition from law enforcement agencies, but was ultimately passed and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September. 

The new laws will impact voters in Los Angeles County during upcoming local elections on March 7. Elections scheduled include those for Los Angeles' mayor, several L.A. City Council seats and a quarter-cent county sales tax proposal to fund homeless services.

Because the county proposal is on the ballot, the county will administer the March 7 election. The city of Los Angeles will then take over, running its general election on May 16.

Chris Garcia, election manager for the city of Los Angeles, said his office routinely monitors bills to keep the city's elections in line with the state election code.

California has some of the most voter-friendly laws in nation, Garcia said.

“It’s fair to say that we’re on the forefront of these type of changes compared to the rest of the country,” he said. 

In 2017, Los Angeles will implement another state law, one allowing voters to take selfie photos with their ballots. That law reverses a longstanding ban on revealing a marked ballot in California. 

The most significant change in the new year will come as counties prepare for the new Voter's Choice Act, according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

The voting overhaul will dramatically change the way voters participate in elections in counties that opt into it. For one thing, it's expected to do away with thousands of traditional polling locations starting as early as 2018.

They'll be replaced by vote centers open over several days and that are designed to increase flexibility for voters. But the loss of local polling spots may not play well with some voters.

"It's really important for voters to pay attention to what's going to happen. A lot of people are very attached to their polling places. This new voting method will give voters more options," she said. "Some people may welcome that, some people may not like these changes." 

Alexander said voters should let their county supervisors know if they support the changes or would like to see them reversed. 

Many counties across the state will also make funding and voting equipment purchasing decisions to get ready for the overhaul in the new year. Orange County is among the first counties set to participate. L.A. County is expected to follow in 2020.