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Make Universal Vote by Mail ‘Permanent,’ Says California Secretary of State Nominee Shirley Weber

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California State Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) speaks during a news conference to announce new legislation to address recent deadly police shootings on April 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
California state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, speaks during a news conference to announce new legislation to address recent deadly police shootings on April 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is poised to assume the management of California's elections at a crucial juncture as the state continues a yearslong shift in the way voters cast their ballots.

In an interview with KQED, the nominee for California secretary of state said she hopes to continue reforms that led to historic levels of voter participation in this year's election, where over 80% of registered voters in the state cast a ballot.

Those reforms include mailing every voter a ballot by default, which was piloted this year in order to prevent crowding at the polls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Weber said she supports making that change permanent.

The San Diego Democrat was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace current Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who will fill Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' seat in the U.S. Senate.

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Weber has served in the state Assembly since 2012 and is a member (and former chair) of the Assembly Committee on Elections. The daughter of sharecroppers, her father fled a lynch mob in Arkansas and ended up in Los Angeles, where Weber was raised. Her grandfather died before the passage of the Voting Rights Act and never was able to cast a ballot.

KQED Politics and Government reporter Guy Marzorati spoke with Weber about what she hopes to accomplish as secretary of state if the Legislature confirms her nomination next month.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Guy Marzorati: Can you give us a preview of your agenda in leading the secretary of state’s office?

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber: My goal is to continue opening up the process, making sure that we have access to voting in a variety of ways. The last election was a good example of the fact that people not only had the opportunity to vote by mail, but they could vote in person, they could vote early, all those kinds of things.

In this environment we're finding ourselves under attack in terms of voting, sometimes without good rationale. There's a lot of folks — and not always in California but across the nation — that are throwing things at voting and then discovering that there's nothing out of the ordinary. I think it's extremely important to make sure that we're transparent, that we restore people's confidence in our voting system, but also make it accessible and open to everyone. And so we want to continue those efforts in my administration.

In order to avoid crowding at the polls during the pandemic, California mailed every voter a ballot. Do you support making that change permanent?

I do support that and the Legislature may as well. It is an option that's available that people can take advantage of and it worked well, I think, in California this last time. I do support making it a permanent fixture of California's options available to voters.

In many ways, the pandemic accelerated California’s shift under the Voter's Choice Act, with many counties opting for larger countywide vote centers instead of traditional assigned polling places. Will you encourage more counties to take that step?

The pandemic did push us in a lot of areas and a lot of ways that would have taken us longer to come to. I think we would have arrived there, but it would have been a slower process.

But it has pushed us, it has pushed us to try some new things and not only in voting but probably in every aspect of our lives. I mean, most of us didn't even know what Zoom was and now we've discovered that.

What do you see as the future of in-person voting in California?

I think in-person voting will continue to exist. I think we're going to see the shift where it's going to become a lot less [used].

My mother used to be the poll supervisor in our home, in our living room. So that's always been part of my culture and part of who I am. And then you had part of the culture that was afraid to vote by mail because they figured in the South they would throw their ballots away. And so we're still confronted with some of that.

But it's interesting that I think more and more of that will go away, as I deal with individuals and communities that sometimes cannot get to the polls or have various challenges in getting there, they are much more willing to take that ballot and to mark it in advance.

There was some confusion and controversy this year over California's ballot collection law, labeled by some as “ballot harvesting.” The Republican party even set up their own private collection boxes in some counties. Does the state’s ballot collection law need any changes in your mind?

I think at some point there will be a discussion about it — there should be — in the Legislature as to whether or not this is something we want to either put more regulations and restrictions on, or basically leave it as it is. There may be a need for greater restrictions or at least a definition of what a ballot box has to look like and maybe you have to get permission to have one.

It's a good challenge to say, 'OK, if we're going to have various places that people can drop them off, do we need to define where those places are? Do we need to make sure that the collection is occurring, that there's someone responsible for it?'

People were shocked when they saw the [GOP] ballot boxes and were like, 'There's a flaw in this somehow and there needs to be some clear restrictions and definitions.' And I think that should happen, and we may be requesting that.

You led the effort in 2016 to ensure the right to vote for Californians in county jail. Now voters have re-enfranchised tens of thousands of parolees with the passage of Proposition 17. What does your office plan to do to spread info about this right to vote to Californians on parole?

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California is a very progressive state. And yet that was one of the areas in which we weren't very progressive. People had served time, sometimes 20, 25 years, and were out on parole, sometimes parole terms were very long depending on certain circumstances and they didn't have the right to vote. I think the public said very clearly, yes, they should have the right to vote.

There was a bill that was going to come forward this year that I had been asked to carry. And I hope someone else [will introduce it]. It talked about when people are released, they should be given certain information. And one of those things should be a driver's license. Maybe the other thing should be a registration card so they can register to vote.

One thing I heard from election officials up and down the state this year is that they finally had the money they needed to run elections, largely because of funding from the federal CARES Act. Given that some tough budget years may be ahead in California, what’s your pitch to the governor and to your soon-to-be-former colleagues in the Legislature to make elections a budget priority?

Well, you know, being able to vote and having access to voting is truly, truly a part of what democracy is all about, and I think we have to prioritize that. I hope the Legislature saw that when you put the money into it, you get better results. You get people who go to vote. Investing in outreach, investing in creating opportunities for people to vote, giving them more options, creates a better voting environment, a stronger democracy.

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So I'm going to do my best to make sure my colleagues — and they know I'm very persuasive — will know just how important it is. I know why it's extremely important for people to vote. And I also know what happens when people are disenfranchised. It is devastating and it's equally harmful when they not just vote, but when they're disenfranchised. And that can be a lack of opportunity with regards to not understanding our rights ... that voting is not accessible and it's too difficult for people to get to the polls. It's the highest priority of this democracy and we should make it that by what we do with the programs in the budget.

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