After Historic Election, California Legislators Consider Keeping Voting Changes

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Joy Okochi drops her mail-in ballot into a U.S. Postal Service mailbox in San Francisco on Oct. 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California's 2020 election was marked by historic levels of voter participation amid rapid changes in the voting process.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred state lawmakers to broaden voting options in the name of safety. For the first time, every voter was mailed a ballot, while early voting was expanded and polling places were abandoned in favor of countywide voting locations.

In a report released Wednesday, the National Vote at Home Institute gave California its highest score, praising the state for policy changes implemented in 2020.

"They did achieve monumental success in terms of the adjustments while dealing with the pandemic," said Amber McReynolds, the institute's CEO.

Now, lawmakers in Sacramento have to figure out which changes to keep.

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That work begins on Thursday, when the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee is set to consider legislation that would extend the state's universal vote-by-mail provisions for another year. That would cover special elections (and any potential recall election) held in 2021.

"We're going to look carefully at last year's mailing-a-ballot-to-everybody and confirming that that's been a healthy, fair, honest process," said Steve Glazer, D-Concord, the new chair of the Senate Elections Committee. "I am hoping that the results will come in with a green light so that we can continue to advance ways to get more citizens involved."

Here's an early look at the election legislation on the docket this year:

Universal Vote by Mail: Last year, the Legislature approved a plan to send every registered voter in California a vote-by-mail ballot. The idea was to encourage voting at home in order to avoid crowding at the polls that might further spread the coronavirus.

"Because it worked so well, we want to replicate that for 2021," said state Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana.

Senate Bill 29, written by Umberg, would continue universal vote by mail for another year, covering the special election for the 30th District state Senate seat vacated by new Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. It could also apply to a special election to fill San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber's seat (if she is confirmed as secretary of state) and a potential recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom.

"Special elections and off-year elections are notoriously low in terms of turnout," Umberg said. "I think this should help turnout by making sure everybody has access to a ballot."

SB 29, which will have its first hearing in the state Senate on Thursday, is an urgency measure that would take effect immediately if approved.

Assembly Bill 37, written by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, would make universal vote by mail a permanent feature of California elections. Weber has said she would support the change as secretary of state.

A handful of Republicans supported making the change last year, but it's unclear how many would back an ongoing expansion of mail voting.

"I oppose the direct sending of the ballots," said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, the top Republican on the Elections Committee. "I believe there are too many vulnerabilities with that approach."

Even if vote by mail becomes the default in California, it doesn't appear that the state is going in the direction of Utah and Colorado, which have largely done away with in-person voting.

"We certainly don't want to see an end to in-person voting," said Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California. "People do need to talk to other people — maybe they have a question about their registration, maybe they have a question about the ballot, maybe they need special equipment because of some sort of disability that makes it difficult to handle a ballot at home."

In 2020, California counties were allowed to reduce the number of voting locations that they offered if they opened for at least three days of early voting.

Legislators will need to decide on a new minimum amount of in-person voting that balances costs and voter needs. The law on the books requires counties that offer in-person voting to do so for 11 days, which many local officials see as cost prohibitive.

Funding for Election Administration: Local election officials throughout California credit the success of the 2020 vote to the additional funding that came their way, largely through the federal CARES Act.

In essence, they had the resources to conduct two elections: a vote-by-mail election that required sending every voter a ballot with a prepaid return envelope, complete with ballot tracking technology and drop-box locations; alongside an in-person election that required renting voting locations, recruiting poll workers and stocking up on sanitizer and protective gear.

An official ballot drop box
A man walks past an official ballot drop box in Los Angeles on Oct. 12, 2020. Republicans had set up unofficial drop boxes at churches, gas stations and gun shops in at least three California counties. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

If the state wants to replicate that success in the future, they need to pay for it, said Cathy Darling Allen, registrar of voters in Shasta County, who noted that counties are currently not reimbursed at all by the state for special elections.

"If I had just one thing to ask the legislature for in 2021, it would be to craft a regular and consistent funding to counties for the conduct of elections," Allen said.

Ballot Collection: Debate over California's ballot collection law, long a scourge of state Republicans, took a different twist in 2020. The provision allowing voters to entrust someone else to return their ballot was used by local GOP officials to justify the creation of private ballot drop boxes — some with the label "official."  Democrats cried foul and the labels were removed, but under the law, the votes were allowed to be counted.

Now, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are calling for reforms to the practice (often referred to as "ballot harvesting"), which could include requiring ballot collectors to identify themselves, helping local election officials maintain a chain of custody for the ballot.

SB 34, also written by Umberg, would create penalties for falsely labeling a voting location or drop box as "official."

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"We need to make sure that any confusion is absolutely eliminated and that people who try to do this in the future are sanctioned," he said.

Election Day Holiday: Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, is proposing to make Election Day a state holiday, with the goal of making it even easier for Californians to find time to vote.

Last year, companies including Twitter, Chase, Salesforce and Old Navy gave employees the day off or paid them to work as poll workers.

AB 53 would avoid added costs by replacing the President's Day holiday with Election Day in even years.

A potential hurdle could be winning over education advocates: School funding is based on attendance, and a state holiday on a Tuesday could drive down attendance on the day before.

Restrictions on Presidential Electors: State law requires the state's presidential electors — a slate which includes state and local officeholders — to vote for the candidate who won California. But there's currently no recourse if the electors decide to go rogue.

Under SB 103, an elector who moved to cast their vote against the state's winner "would be replaced or their vote would be changed to reflect the will of the voters," said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, the bill's author.

States including Michigan and North Carolina already have similar elector laws on the books.