Citing public health concerns over millions of Californians showing up at voting locations this fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered ballots to be mailed to the state’s 20.6 million voters for the November election while imposing strict new rules for anyone who participates in person.
The decision, Newsom said, reflects the assessment from health officials that the COVID-19 pandemic will not have subsided enough to permit the election to move forward under its traditional rules. While a majority of California’s votes are now cast from a voting place, the change would mark the first time in state history that every registered voter is mailed a ballot.
“There’s a lot of excitement around this November’s election in terms of making sure that you can conduct yourself in a safe way, and make sure your health is protected,” Newsom said during a midday event.
The decision to radically rethink the November election comes on the heels of a similar effort pushed by lawmakers and local elections officials. On Wednesday, the chairmen of the Legislature’s two elections committees asked the governor to preempt their own effort, arguing that local officials needed more time to prepare for the changes than might otherwise be available if they had to wait for legislation to be enacted.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s chief elections officer, praised the decision.
“It’s great for public health, it’s great for voting rights, it’s gonna be great for participation,” he said.
California currently has a patchwork system for voting in person, one that varies by county. While the majority of local governments offer traditional polling places on election day, 14 counties already mail a ballot to every voter under provisions of a 2016 law that swaps new “vote centers” for traditional neighborhood polling places. L.A. County, the only place allowed to enact that system without mailing all voters a ballot this year, is already poised to do so for November after the March primary saw widespread problems, including long lines at in-person vote centers that are now being investigated by auditors.
Local elections officials have already been looking ahead with concern to the possibility of voters showing up in person.
“Social distancing makes most current poll worker training settings untenable and the majority of poll workers are at increased risk due to their age,” wrote Joseph Holland, the registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County and president of the state clerks association, in a letter to Newsom last month. “Finding suitable voting locations that will allow for proper social distancing and space for line queuing, issuing, voting and receiving ballots will be extremely challenging.”
Newsom’s order, however, requires some in-person voting to be allowed. The governor cited the needs of disabled voters, in particular, who may require assisted technology to cast a ballot.
“We still want to have the appropriate number of physical sites for people to vote as well,” he said.
Five states have permanent all-mail elections. California’s change would only be for November. But compared with many others, the state is relatively well prepared to implement Newsom’s directive. California has had generous rules for absentee voting since 2002, allowing voters to opt for permanent voting by mail regardless of the reason.
Remote voting was a key component of the March statewide primary, during which 72% of all ballots were cast by mail — a record high. But a number of counties had much lower absentee voting records, meaning the change will take considerable work to implement.
The cost of moving to mailing everyone a ballot could also be daunting, and locals have often complained that the state has expanded access to voting while not providing sufficient funds for the counties to do the work. And because voter turnout is traditionally higher in general elections, a temporary shift to all-mail voting could create significant new challenges in funding and logistics.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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