Clearing Away Barriers to Voter Registration


By Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
& Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas

In California, there are about 7 million people who are eligible to vote but never registered to do so, including 1.2 million in Los Angeles County. It’s a shocking statistic, considering the sacrifices made to win passage of the historic Voting Rights Act, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.

It doesn’t help that our County’s manual voter registration system is more than 20 years out of date and paper-based, making it prone to problems caused by illegible handwriting, inaccurate information, data duplication and operator error.

More than ever, a new system is needed. Thankfully, Governor Jerry Brown has a bill sitting on his desk, awaiting his signature, which could clear away such barriers to the democratic process and dramatically increase the state’s voter rolls.

AB 1461 (Gonzalez, Alejo and McCarty), also known as the California New Motor Voter Act sponsored by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, calls for automatically registering eligible voters when they obtain or renew their driver license at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Modeled on a recently enacted law in Oregon, AB 1461 would require that data already being collected by the DMV also be transmitted electronically to the Secretary of State, who serves as California’s chief elections officer.

The newly registered voters would then either choose a political party affiliation or opt out of voting altogether, by submitting a request to their county elections official. To address privacy concerns, information on non-citizens would not be forwarded to the Secretary of State.

By doing away with the labor-intensive manual voter registration process, AB 1461 would allow the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder-County Clerk to put increased focus on voter outreach and education, which would also boost voter turnout.

The importance of getting eligible voters out to the polls on Election Day cannot be understated. It is the cornerstone of a government that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. And yet, in 2014, California ranked a dismal 43rd in the nation in voter participation, and Los Angeles County recorded the lowest turnout of any county in the state at roughly 25 percent.

The Governor has always been an ardent supporter of voting rights and we urge him to take this opportunity to sign AB 1461. By modernizing and streamlining the democratic process, the proposed California New Motor Voter Act would preserve the legacy of the hard-fought Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a Los Angeles County Supervisor and the founder of the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation project. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas is a member of the California State Assembly and is the Chair of the California Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee.


National Voter Registration Day


Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Homeboy Industries’ Jose Osuna, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, USC’s Jenny Di, and Supervisor Don Knabe

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas issued a call to action on National Voter Registration Day, noting 1.2 million of Los Angeles County’s eligible voters have yet to register.

“Voting is a simple yet powerful act,” he said Tuesday. “The ability to freely cast a ballot and vote is fundamental to a healthy civic life, and registering to vote is a prerequisite to exercise that right.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said registering never been easier, and he urged eligible voters to do any one of the following:

  • register online;
  • call (800) 481-VOTE;
  • pick up a mail-in registration form at most government buildings, including libraries, post offices, and fire stations; or
  • go to any office of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.

Your_Vote_Counts_Badge“We want to encourage eligible voters to register to vote, to exercise their democratic franchise to choose their representation, and to participate in the decisions that shape the policies of their government,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

 “If you don’t vote on Tuesday, don’t complain on Wednesday,” he added.

Also Tuesday, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas awarded scrolls to the Registrar-Recorder/County, University of Southern California, and Homeboy Industries, whom he called “partners who advocate for civic engagement and strive to close the registration gap.”

Registar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan said, “We are the largest county in the most populous state in the greatest nation. We have the opportunity to have the broadest impact in the election process – but it starts with being registered to vote.”

The University of Southern California, through the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, reached out to students Tuesday by holding a National Voter Registration Day event on campus. Last year’s inaugural  event signed up 400 new voters.

Homeboy Industries held its own voter registration drive Tuesday at Homegirl Café, a safe and familiar venue for formerly incarcerated individuals to learn about the civic engagement and voting process.


Transforming the Criminal Justice System with Diversion

mental healthIn a move that could transform Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system, the Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday an innovative plan for sending low-level offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems into treatment, rather than jail, while preserving public safety.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board voted to create an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry within the Department of Health Services. Its mission over the first five years is to steer at least 1,000 individuals onto a path toward mental stability, sobriety and self-sufficiency.

Currently, this population tends to cycle in and out of emergency rooms and jails, at tremendous cost to taxpayers. The newly-created Office of Diversion and Re-Entry will coordinate with other agencies within the criminal justice system and community-based organizations to provide wraparound services, from housing to mental health and substance abuse treatments, and even job training.

“Diversion is the right thing to do, and it puts taxpayer dollars to much better use than incarceration does,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Our current system is effectively broken and, in the final analysis, contributes to recidivism.”

District Attorney Jackie Lacey added, “We must commit to doing a better job of helping those with mental illness reclaim their lives.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ motion, called for developing “a pipeline of no less than 1,000 permanent supportive housing units over the next five years” and suggested evaluating available properties in or near the county’s medical campuses for that purpose.

The Board incorporated amendments by Supervisor Hilda Solis directing the Office to also support inmates at risk of becoming homeless after they leave jail, and by Supervisor Michael Antonovich requiring that expanding housing and treatment services include robust community outreach.

The Board called on the Office to expand existing diversion and anti-recidivism programs that have demonstrated success or shown promise, paying particular attention to those administered in community settings.

The Office would have at least $120 million in funding in its first year.

Board Approves the Creation of an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry

Hoping to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates that are low level offenders in Los Angeles County jails, the Board of Supervisors has approved the creation of an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry to be placed in the Department of Health Services.

The motion, authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, allocates funding for a permanent steering committee made up of five people from key county departments to advise the office. Supervisor Hilda Solis asked that the office also include re-entry services for those who have been released from jail.

The office will be co-chaired on an interim basis by representatives from the District Attorney’s office and the Department of Health Services until a permanent director is hired. The steering committee’s first tasks is to create clear assessment tools for all county departments, the courts and key private provider partners can use to determine who can be served by these services.

“This is not an either or proposition,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “People with substance abuse issues and mental health illness need these services. At the same time, we must still maintain public safety. Diversion is simply the right thing to do.”

Added Supervisor Kuehl: “This is truly an historic day. This diversion motion represents a seismic shift in the way the county treats the mentally ill who too often find themselves, through no fault of their own, caught up in the gears of our justice system. This is a practical motion, and a necessary one that we are confident will work.”

The motion will allocate roughly $120 million, including at least $10 million annually in ongoing funding to the office. A substantial portion of these funds will come from the reallocation of money from two public safety related state bills, SB678 and AB109.

It is estimated that at least 40 percent of the funds will be allocated towards housing and 50 percent for the cost of expanding existing successful or promising diversion and anti-recidivism programs, especially those that are community based.

The proposal comes after the release of a report by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey that addressed the challenges of releasing mentally ill low-level offenders from jail and placing them in treatment. The District Attorney highlighted the lack of resources to treat all those who need help, but can’t afford it.

“I applaud everyone who has brought us to this point, especially District Attorney Jackie Lacey for her leadership,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “I applaud my colleagues on this board for their unrelenting commitment to taking on a huge challenge and finding a better approach.”

Diverting the Mentally Ill from Jail into Treatment

Highway sign with

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas applauded District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s recommendations to divert persons with mental illness from the county jail system, presented Tuesday in a report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas then went a step further, calling for the establishment of an Office of Diversion Services, which would create a comprehensive approach to jail diversion in Los Angeles County.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas plans to file a motion creating a well-funded Office of Diversion Services that includes mental health, housing and legal experts, as well as advisory representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, Public Defender, Alternate Public Defender and the Departments of Mental Health and Health Services.

“We must design and implement a successful plan to deter individuals with mental health and substance abuse problems from going to jail and to keep them from re-offending,” he said. “Through the Office of Diversion Services, the county would have a well-coordinated approach to methodically and holistically address this complex problem. We cannot approach this in a piecemeal manner, but rather by understanding all the elements and addressing public safety as a public health issue.”

District Attorney Lacey’s report, which came in response to a motion authored by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in May 2014, addressed “all circumstances ranging from pre-arrest to post-conviction, in which mentally ill persons can be prevented from entering the jail at all, can be redirected from the jail into treatment, or can receive linkage to services (during and after incarceration) to help prevent them from returning to custody.”

Research indicates that taxpayer dollars are best spent on a comprehensive diversion program that promotes community care. This approach can be more effective than jails in treating mental illness, enhancing public safety, reducing repeat offenses and producing better outcomes. Diversion alternatives could also include development of permanent supportive housing, expansion of successful mental outpatient service programs and more training for law enforcement personnel.

“We need the Office of Diversion Services to serve as a pipeline, bringing people from one resource to the next in an effective way so they do not commit more crimes once they are released,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “In fact, we need to design a game plan so that they don’t enter the system in the first place.”