State Legislature Approves Bill to Mail All California Voters a Ballot

A San Mateo County vote-by-mail ballot in a mail slot. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

A bill to send all California voters a mail-in ballot for the November election cleared its final legislative hurdle Thursday, winning bipartisan support in the State Assembly.

If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Bill 860 will take effect immediately, adding protections in case the spread of COVID-19 hampers in-person voting this fall. The bill's passage also resolves many of the legal questions raised by Newsom's attempt to send out ballots through an executive order.

“No one should have to risk their health and possibly their life to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), the bill's author. "This will ensure that every California voter has the option to vote from the safety of their own home.”

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Berman introduced the legislation in the wake of April's Wisconsin primary, when Democratic efforts to expand mail voting were blocked, and local health officials identified seven people who contracted the coronavirus through election activities.

In California's March primary, 75% of voters received a vote-by-mail ballot — and a handful of counties already send a ballot to all voters.

Weeks after Berman introduced his bill, Newsom issued an executive order with the same goal of expanding vote-by-mail to all registered voters. In June, the governor followed that with another order, clarifying the vote-by-mail expansion and giving counties the option to consolidate polling places.

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) and James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) sued Newsom, claiming his June executive order was an overreach of executive authority.

A Sutter County Superior Court judge issued an injunction against the governor's order last week, but a judge on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento lifted the injunction on Wednesday.

Speaking on the Assembly floor Thursday, Kiley and Gallagher acknowledged that their issues with the mail ballot idea centered on process, not policy: they voted in support of AB 860, along with five other Republicans.

"No legislative process is perfect, and our particular legislative process is especially imperfect," Kiley said. "But it sure beats no process.” 

The bill needed supermajority approval to become law immediately if signed, and easily cleared that hurdle by a 63-2 margin.

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The large bipartisan support exposed the chasm between California legislative Republicans, who along with red-county elections officials have largely supported mail voting, and national Republicans and President Donald Trump — who has attacked efforts to expand vote-by-mail.

The Republican National Committee along with the Republican Party in California also sued Newsom over his order to send ballots to all voters due to the pandemic.

Assemblyman Gallagher said amendments made to AB 860 to allow counties to use their own ballot-tracking systems, and clarifications that only active voters will receive a ballot, show "why it’s important that these things are not done by an executive order." 

"The legislature is the one that needs to do this work," he added.   

Newsom is likely to sign the legislation, having called the need for universal vote-by-mail a "health issue."

A separate bill would allow counties to consolidate polling places ahead of the November election and sets new minimum levels of early voting access. Senate Bill 423 is set to be heard in the Assembly Elections and Redistricting committee next week.