Inside California's Pandemic Election: How COVID-19 Changes Could Shape the Future of Voting

An election employee works in the mail cleaning section, which includes arranging the ballots with their barcodes facing in one direction, at the San Mateo County Elections Office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Election officials across California are breathing a sigh of relief: An election that combined unprecedented changes and unmatched scrutiny amid a global pandemic resulted in historic levels of participation and few widespread issues.

Some features of this year's vote will hopefully go down as historical aberrations, like poll workers in protective gear and masked voters physically distanced in voting locations stocked with hand sanitizer.

Other alterations brought on by the coronavirus — such as the expansion of voting by mail and the shift away from assigned polling places — could spur long lasting changes to the way in which Californians cast their ballots.

In interviews with KQED, more than a dozen election officials and voting advocates agreed that California's recent election in the midst of a pandemic was a success, despite a tight timeline for changes and a few hiccups.

"This is one of the smoothest elections that I've had," said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County. "I really believe we were as best prepared for a pandemic as we could ever be." 

'Perfect Storm' Ends With Record Participation

In some ways, the pandemic merely accelerated voting changes already in the works under Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat.

Roughly three-quarters of voters received vote-by-mail ballots even before the pandemic. And 15 counties had previously abandoned precinct polling locations in favor of the Voters Choice Act model — sending a ballot to every voter and opening county-wide vote centers where any voter could cast a ballot.

But election officials faced unprecedented pressures in 2020: The logistical issues brought on by the virus were combined with attacks  on the voting process by national Republicans.

"It was a perfect storm," said Padilla, who added that the increased focus on election administration did have a positive effect: It sharpened the public's attention to voting rules and deadlines.

"If it helped increase registration and turnout as a result, then I think that is great for democracy at the end of the day," he said. 

In addition, counties finally had the money they needed to conduct elections, through funding from the federal CARES Act, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

And expanding vote-by-mail to every voter allowed advocates to broadcast one set of instructions across the entire state.

"We never had the ability before this election to provide that kind of uniform message to all voters," Alexander said. 

The result was record participation: More than 16 million Californians cast ballots, with three-quarters of votes cast before Election Day.

State lawmakers are already eyeing the possibility of making some of the pandemic-related changes permanent.

But voting experts caution that there is still work to do to reduce roadblocks to voting, like lines, confusion and language barriers. They hope the state Legislature, freed from election-year deadlines, can carefully consider any consequences for voters with limited English proficiency, infrequent voters and others at risk of disenfranchisement.

"If we are going to continue to make changes to electoral models, we should not do it in a rushed way as we were forced to do this year," said Julia Marks, voting rights attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.

Voters drop off their mail-in ballots at the Chase Center official ballot drop-off location on Oct. 31, 2020.
Voters drop off their mail-in ballots at the Chase Center official ballot drop-off location on Oct. 31, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Changing Approaches With 'Clock Ticking' 

California's March 3 primary was largely unaffected by the spread of COVID-19, but weeks later, the state was in lockdown.

In early April, Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, introduced legislation to mail every registered voter a ballot, and subsequent legislation allowed California counties to consolidate voting locations, if they agreed to offer three days of early voting.

Nationally, voting by mail became a political lightening rod, as President Donald Trump blasted the practice with unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud.

But in California, the bill expanding mail voting received bipartisan support. In recent years, California voters of both parties have embraced voting by mail. 

"I think the transition to sending every voter a ballot wasn't as big a challenge as it was in some other states," said Raúl Macías, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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The process still required delicate coordination between state officials and county registrars, who are ultimately in charge of local elections. Roughly two dozen counties decided to cut down on voting locations, with 17 jettisoning assigned polling places for the first time in favor of countywide voting hubs.

County registrars described weekly meetings with Padilla's staff, along with late night and weekend conversations to ensure a smooth transition.

Meanwhile, nonprofits and labor groups successfully pressured lawmakers to maintain a baseline requirement for in-person voting. They argued that Black and Latino Californians are less likely to vote by mail than white Californians, and that in-person voting is crucial for voters with disabilities or language access needs.

"I think Secretary Padilla deserves a lot of credit for the leadership he showed to bring folks together to try to come up with a model for November," said Macías, who was among the voices calling for the state to maintain in-person voting.

In August, Newsom signed off on new regulations setting minimum requirements for in-person voting, as counties scrambled to find voting locations and recruit poll workers.

"The clock was ticking so fast to November," said John Arntz, director of San Francisco's Department of Elections, who said local officials are typically "planning six, seven, eight months before an election." 

Election staff are trained at the San Mateo County Elections Office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Californians Embrace Expanded Voting by Mail and Early Voting

Election officials feared that many longtime poll workers, traditionally retirees, would stay home during the pandemic. And many houses of worship and schools were reluctant to open their doors to voters when their own operations were in flux because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But the extra funding from Congress, partnerships with professional sports venues and statewide poll worker recruitment drives left only one county, Butte, unable to meet the state's requirements for in-person voting services.

"We had thousands more people volunteer to be poll workers than we could actually assign," Arntz said. "It was amazing." 

Perhaps the most important factor in the smooth election was that Californians bought into voting by mail and early voting at record levels, easing the burden on Election Day staff.

According to the U.S. Elections Project, more than 12 million Californians voted before Election Day, with upwards of 80% using their mail-in ballot.

In Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties, just 6-7% of voters opted to cast a ballot in person.

And as ballots arrived, election workers were able to immediately prepare them for counting and avoid a backlog of ballots, thanks to a new state law permitting early ballot processing.

"That took that pressure off," said Kelley, who said despite "massive" last minute poll worker cancellations in Orange County, "we were still able to handle that volume without any issues really at all."

Mail-in ballots go through a machine that photographs the back of each envelope at San Francisco City Hall on Oct. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Voters Still Faced Issues in Some Counties

That's not to say problems were entirely avoided at the polls. Election officials and voting advocates reported long lines in Fresno, Merced, Riverside, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Santa Clara counties. Spacing was to blame in many locations, as social distancing requirements limited the number of voters who could enter the facilities and cast ballots.

"That's really what caused the lines," said Brandi Orth, Fresno County clerk and registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. "We just couldn't get as many people physically in the locations as we could in March." 

And in Imperial and Kern counties, voters who arrived at polling places without their vote-by-mail ballots, expecting to vote in-person, were forced to cast provisional ballots, said Julia Gomez, attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.

That's because the counties lacked the ability to check in real time if a voter's mail-in ballot had already been cast.

"Going forward we could avoid this problem with more public education and making sure that these counties have the technology," Gomez said. 

What's Next for Voting

In future elections, the state could also do more to expand language assistance for voters who lack English proficiency, such as Somali speakers in San Diego, Gomez said. A 2019 lawsuit forced the state to provide election materials in 14 additional languages this year.

On the wish list of some county officials: A revision of the state's ballot collection laws, a hotbed of partisan debate. In October, state and local Republican parties created controversial private drop boxes — some labeled "official" — that they argued followed state law allowing a designated person to deliver a voter's ballot.

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States including Minnesota and New Jersey have limits on the number of ballots a single person can collect, while Oregon requires that all private drop boxes be clearly labeled as unofficial.

And as more voters choose to vote by mail, counties will have to find solutions for the growing number of ballots that are rejected, often because of an issue with the voter's signature. One solution could be to scan and process a voter's ballot while they are present, as Shasta County did this year.

Beyond addressing the issues that voters faced this year, lawmakers and election officials anticipate that many of the changes to voting brought on by COVID-19 could become permanent.

"Despite the pandemic, this turned out to be a very successful election year and could very well serve as a model, not just for statewide adoption going forward, but for states across the country," Padilla said. 

This week, Assemblyman Berman announced that he will introduce legislation to mail every registered voter a ballot in all future elections.

"I think it is important to move in the direction of making this permanent because more and more voters are getting used to the convenience of voting by mail," Berman said. 

Many counties, including Alameda, San Francisco and Sonoma, may opt in to the Voters Choice Act in future elections and leave neighborhood polling places in the past.

Still, the biggest hurdle is the current requirement to open vote centers for 11 days before the election which many registrars see as a waste of money for the amount of foot traffic they anticipate that far in advance of Election Day. This year, that requirement was reduced to three days of early voting.

More broadly, election officials in California disagree over the future need for in-person voting, given voters' increasing preference for voting by mail.

Berman said he opposes eliminating in-person voting in California, and advocates argue that voting locations are essential for voters who aren't comfortable with mail-in voting, along with those who require language assistance at the polls. 

But under the hybrid system used this fall, counties are "doing two elections in parallel," said Scott Konopasek, assistant registrar of voters in Contra Costa County. He said voting by mail cost his county nearly twice as much as in-person voting.

"You're doing an in-person election as if everyone's going to show up in-person, and then you're doing a vote-by-mail election as if everyone is going to vote by mail," he said.

In 2020, counties could tap the extra funding made available by Congress for pandemic-related election preparations. But as they prepare for 2022, local officials could be forced to reckon with tighter state budgets.

"If you want to keep that [voter turnout] increase then you need to be looking hard and fast at providing the options for counties to successfully implement some version of this process that we just did," said Joe Holland, registrar of voters in Santa Barbara County.

"Sure elections are expensive, but how darn important is it?" he added. "What's a more important government function than securing our democracy?"

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