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California Officials Say They'll Be Ready For November Election

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A man checks in for early voting in the midterm elections at a polling station in a public library in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles on Nov. 4, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

California officials say the state will be ready for the November general election, despite the coronavirus pandemic. But questions remain about key issues, including whether groups pushing ballot measures will be able to collect signatures before the June deadline given current social distancing requirements.

It also remains unclear whether traditional polling places will be up and running by the fall, given concerns about the virus. In the March 3 primary election, 75 percent of registered voters in California received a vote-by-mail ballot — and Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he is confident that counties can expand that number to all voters by the fall.

Padilla said his office is working with counties to ensure that by November, anyone who wants a ballot in the mail gets one — and safe opportunities will be available for people to vote in person if they prefer.

“It's important to recognize that throughout our nation's history, voters have gone to the polls in times of peace, in times of war, in good economic times, during economic recessions, including the Great Depression and even during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic,” Padilla told KQED on Thursday. “We've had our share of challenges over the years, but our democracy has proven to be resilient. And I think it's with that spirit that we look at how to best prepare for this November's election.”

Padilla said many policies embraced in recent years by the state, including online voter registration and increasing the ease of using vote-by-mail ballots, "will serve us well in terms of keeping our democracy going during this public health crisis.”

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation — a nonpartisan group dedicated to ensuring access to voting — said it’s true that California is in a good spot compared to many other states, given its commitment to voting access. But she noted that Los Angeles County saw big problems during the March primary, when it moved to a new voting system and eliminated hundreds of polling places in favor of voting centers, resulting in hours-long lines on Election Day.

“So there already was a discussion going on — and there is a discussion going on — among lawmakers, the secretary of state and the LA County Board of Supervisors about the feasibility of expanding vote-by-mail ballot distribution in Los Angeles County to all 5.5 million registered voters there,” she said.

And even if counties can get all voters a ballot in the mail, another challenge remains, noted Alexander: making sure voters know they have them.

“When voters don't connect with their ballots, they end up showing up at polling places on Election Day asking to vote, and then they're stuck voting with a provisional ballot. ... That creates a lot of unhappy voters because they don't want to cast provisional ballots and it makes more work for election officials,” she said.

Padilla said counties will get some practice in the coming weeks, and the state will learn some lessons, when three separate jurisdictions — Riverside County, portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties and the city of Westminster in Orange County — hold separate special elections in April and May.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order making all three of those elections vote-by-mail ballot only. 

And broadly speaking, Padilla added, voting by mail “has been gaining in popularity,” in California.

“You know, in some counties maybe 50% or slightly higher vote by mail. Other counties have been north of 70% for some time,” he said. “So moving to a model that calls for every voter being mailed a ballot automatically shouldn't be as big of a shift for counties in California as for jurisdictions in other parts of the country.”

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley will oversee the April 7 election in Westminster, a vote to recall the mayor and two city council members. Since about 80 percent of voters in the county are already used to voting by mail, he doesn’t think the switch to an entirely vote-by-mail election will be all that difficult.


“What we've done for Westminster is we've actually sent out a communication to every single voter in that jurisdiction,” he said. “We would do the same thing for any upcoming election as well, to let them know, 'Hey, here's the options for you'."

In the March primary, Kelley said, Orange County for the first time allowed disabled and overseas voters to electronically mark a ballot online and then mail it in — and that option is being expanded in the upcoming election to anyone affected by the coronavirus.

"To the credit of the state, and particularly the secretary of state, they've already put together a working group looking forward to November, how we're gonna meet those challenges. So those discussions are just now starting to take place,” he said.

Election 2020

Padilla, however, said that other states may not be in as good shape as California, and he slammed Congress for not putting more than $400 million in the $2 trillion stimulus legislation signed by President Trump on Friday. California is expected to get $36.2 million from that allocation of federal funds to address voting.

“We think the model is very clear in terms of how to best serve the voters across the country as we prepare for the November general election: vastly increased vote by mail, vastly increased early voting opportunities, vastly expanded online registration in states that don't have it already,” Padilla said. “Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity by Congress to do exactly that. The stimulus package does include $400 million dollars for states to invest in elections, but no requirement that they do what California's already doing, frankly.”

Alexander, of the California Voter Foundation, agreed. Across the nation, elections have historically been underfunded by state and federal officials, she said, leaving counties scrambling to pick up the pieces.

And in California, the biggest unknown is the fate of the reams of statewide and local ballot measures that haven’t yet collected enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Currently, those signatures are constitutionally required to be turned in by June 20 — and supporters of the initiatives are getting nervous.

In the Bay Area city of Richmond, conservationists pushing a local open space measure sent a letter to the governor last week, noting that they are legally prevented from collecting signatures, given the statewide shelter-in-place order.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney representing the measure's backers, asked for several remedies: a delay of the signature-gathering deadline; the opportunity to collect signatures electronically and the possibility of a special election in 2021 for ballot measures that don’t meet the signature requirements in time.

Newsom said this week that he hasn’t decided whether to delay that constitutional deadline.

But Padilla said doing so could be difficult given how early ballots and election materials have to be printed.

“We're gonna be limited in terms of what we can do, given some practical deadlines, as we prepare for the November election,” he said. “And frankly, as we focus on November, first and foremost, we have to make sure we maintain free, fair, safe and healthy elections, and we'll do our best to accommodate anything else.”

KQED's Scott Shafer contributed to this report.


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