State Legislature Votes to Extend Universal Vote-by-Mail Through 2021

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A vote-by-mail ballot collection box at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters in Oakland on Oct. 27, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California voters will continue to receive a ballot in the mail without requesting one, under legislation approved by the State Assembly on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 29, which now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk, would continue the state’s universal vote-by-mail system until the end of the year — encompassing special elections and a potential recall election of Newsom that could take place in the fall.

A supermajority of legislators in both houses supported the bill, allowing it to take effect immediately after it is signed. Unlike previous advances of vote-by-mail, the bill was uniformly opposed by Republicans.

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The vote marks the latest step in California's transition away from traditional in-person voting. Last fall, election officials mailed every registered voter a ballot in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at the polls.

"This bill recognizes that the pandemic has not gone away," said Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park.

Republicans called the idea of extending universal mail-in voting a bait and switch, arguing that the changes made in 2020 were only meant to be temporary.

"We were told this universal vote-by-mail process was necessary for the 2020 general election for safety reasons during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine. "However, we know it is possible to administer in-person elections while protecting the public health from COVID-19."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidance for the safe administration of in-person voting, but urges election officials to "consider offering alternatives to in-person voting if allowed."

Supporters of vote-by-mail have not concealed their hope that the practice remain the default method even after the pandemic is over — arguing that easier access to a ballot will spur greater voter participation.

Under the tenure of former Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the share of Californians voting with a mail-in ballot jumped from 57% in 2016, to 86% last year. Already, more than a dozen counties mail voters a ballot in every election.

Berman, who wrote the bill that expanded vote-by-mail last year, called the 2020 election "a great success," pointing to historic levels of turnout and no widespread issues with election management.

He has written separate legislation to apply the change to all future elections, an idea backed by Secretary of State Shirley Weber.

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On Tuesday, the fate of SB 29 hung in limbo for more than two hours, as the bill remained one vote short of passage after the first roll-call vote.

The decisive 54th vote was finally cast by Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles, who got to the Assembly floor from Los Angeles after participating in the opening of a new vaccination site in the morning.

The party-line vote on the measure was another indication of the Republican Party's growing aversion to voting by mail. Less than a year ago, nine Republicans in the Legislature backed the plan to send out ballots to all registered voters.

"What is shocking to me is at this stage, us even having this debate," said Assemblyman Chad Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, who supported the bill. "I remember being a young-ish Republican activist going out and trying to get more people to vote by mail, because we thought Republicans were going to turn out more."

If signed by Newsom, SB 29 immediately applies to the special elections scheduled for the 30th Senate District in Los Angeles — which already sends every voter a ballot — and the 79th Assembly District in San Diego.

But the legislation's greatest impact could be felt in a gubernatorial recall election later this year, if a campaign to replace Newsom gathers enough signatures to put a recall before voters.

The 2003 recall election, when California voters replaced Gov. Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger, saw the highest levels of turnout of any gubernatorial election between 1986 and 2014. An election in which every voter received a ballot in advance could present both parties with a larger electorate from which to draw votes.

"Once the rules are set [the California Republican Party] must strategize and play this game of politics to win," tweeted Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, during Tuesday's vote. "Crying that the other side sets the rules is no way to win. Beat them at their own game."