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The ghost of elections past: What happened to your polling place?

Voting in Southern California has seen some rapid changes in recent years.

True, the fundamental way local and state governments choose their leaders remains the same, but the mechanics by which a vote is cast are wildly different.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that point better than the disappearance of the neighborhood polling place, once a staple of election season.

In 2018, Los Angeles County had 4,165 such polling places. This year, however, there will only be a few hundred, though changes in the ways people can cast their ballots are intended to more than make up for the reduction.

It’s all part of the Voter’s Choice Act, which was approved by the state’s voters in 2016.

Starting in 2018 with five counties in Northern California, the law expanded mail-in voting and kept in-person voting centers open for longer periods of time.

In addition, residents of anywhere in a county can return their mail-in ballot, get a replacement ballot, vote in person and more at any of their county’s vote centers, some of which open up to 10 days before Election Day.

For instance, in Los Angeles County, up to 120 vote centers open 10 days before Election Day, and up to 640 are open for three days prior to and on Election Day.

Elections officials are hoping the increased convenience of voting will lead to more participation, according to the League of Women Voters.

“The whole idea is make it easy, make it multiple days, have these centers — hopefully in a just way in every neighborhood — and make sure they’re available to everybody,” said Mona Field, president of the LWV of Greater Los Angeles.

Field, who also is a professor emeritus of political science at Glendale Community College, served in elected office as a member of the L.A. Community College Board of Trustees and helped author a textbook on political science, said it’s possible that the changes may negatively impact more than just the polling place; the concept of Election Day itself could be at stake.

“It used to be there was one day you could go vote, one day and that was it. There was a time when you could not get a ballot mailed to you unless you were leaving the country or had some other reason you could not go on that one day,” she said.

Now, the unique activities of Election Day are spread out through the week of the election.

“The date of the election is quite a bit less important in terms of how people vote, but it’s still sort of the moment. After 8 p.m., you can’t show up to a voting center, and if you mail, if it doesn’t land by 5 p.m. Friday, then it won’t be counted, so there are still some deadlines based on the date of the election,” she said.

Election Day is becoming just one of several deadlines in the electoral process instead of the one-day extravaganza many Americans knew growing up, but state officials believe that the changes will further their goal of increasing access to the ballot.

“I am very happy to be a California where there’s a huge agreement at all levels of government that we should all be able to vote safely and securely. There’s a lot of places where it’s a whole different story,” Field said.

With each election, more of California’s counties seem to be buying in to the new system. After the original five counties of 2018, the VCA spread to Los Angeles and Orange counties in 2020, and Riverside and Ventura counties are participating in the 2022 race as VCA counties for the first time.

“With VCA elections, voters will have more choices on where, when, and how they cast their ballot. It encourages participation by removing the limitations of one-day voting,” said Mark Lunn, Ventura County clerk-recorder and registrar of voters, in a statement earlier this year.

Rebecca Spencer, registrar of voters for Riverside County, said the VCA model “will serve all Riverside County residents well going into the future.”

“We look to continue to provide our citizens with the best voting experience possible, while ensuring equal access to the ballot, protecting the integrity of votes, and maintaining a transparent, accurate and fair process,” she said in her county’s Election Administration Plan.

None of this is to say the process of voting won’t change again — one day, it could transition to a vote-by-mail-only format, or digital voting might be implemented — but it remains important that no matter how you choose to do it, people need to make their voices heard by participating in elections.

“Tell everybody to vote,” Field said. “There’s an old saying, if you don’t vote, don’t complain. You can’t complain if you don’t vote. It’s the bottom line. There’s a lot of ways to be involved in the community, but this is kind of the rock bottom for people lucky enough to live in this country.”

Looking for a place to drop off your ballot or vote in person? Check out the Los Angeles Times’ roundup of Southern California sites.

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