Touting High Turnout, Vote-by-Mail Advocates Seek Permanent Change to California Elections

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A UC Berkeley student drops off a mail-in ballot at the official ballot dropbox on the campus on Nov. 1, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With fights brewing in state legislatures across the country over proposed restrictions on voting, California lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction — advancing an expansion of mail-in voting that would transform future elections in the state.

In 2020, California enacted a universal vote-by-mail system, with supporters arguing that the policy was crucial to prevent voters from crowding and spreading COVID-19 at the polls.

But with the pandemic waning in the state, advocates are pointing to the historic turnout and smooth administration of last year's election in California, in a bid to make those voting changes permanent.

"If your goal is to increase turnout, mailing a ballot to every voter probably accomplishes most of the turnout benefits," said Eric McGhee, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, which released a study this week detailing the turnout effects of mail-in voting.

Legislation that would direct counties to send every registered voter a ballot by default in all future elections faces its first hearing in the state Assembly on Thursday.

The push for increased mail-in voting in California stands in contrast to moves by some Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country to restrict access to the ballot. Many proposals were launched in response to false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 350 restrictive bills have recently been introduced, and five have already been signed into law.

Before 2020, vote-by-mail expansion "wasn’t really a political fight," said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections program director at the advocacy group Common Cause.

"These provisions have been passed in red, blue and purple states for years," Albert said. "It’s really just now that we’re seeing a division where states that are improving access are generally Democratic-controlled and states that are attempting to suppress the vote are generally Republican-controlled."

In February, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to ensure voters will receive a ballot in the mail by default for all elections held in 2021.

Assembly Bill 37, which will be heard by the Assembly Committee on Elections, would make California the sixth state in the country to enact a permanent universal vote-by-mail policy. If it passes, in-person voting would still remain an option.

The bill would also allow counties to begin processing (but not counting) ballots a month before Election Day, and allow ballots mailed by Election Day to count if they are received by election officials within a week.

"While we see so many efforts in other states to make it harder for people to vote, let’s have California be a real example of what works well," said Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, the bill's author.

Berman wrote the legislation that piloted a universal vote-by-mail system in California in 2020. That bill, which gained the support of nine Republicans in the Legislature, was trumpeted as a way to make voting at home easy and safe during the pandemic.

Now, members of the GOP are likely to argue that long-term shifts toward voting at home are unnecessary as coronavirus cases fall. No Republican lawmaker voted in support of extending the vote-by-mail provisions through the end of the 2021.

Supporters of Berman's bill are touting mail-in voting as a way to maintain the historic levels of voter participation seen in the 2020 election. Over 80% of registered voters cast a ballot in California, the highest mark since 1976.

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The PPIC report released this week found that sending every voter a ballot is the most effective strategy to boost voter participation. While a competitive presidential election led to a jump in turnout in nearly every state compared to 2016, states that shifted to universal mail balloting, including Utah, Hawaii and California, saw the largest average increases.

Other vote-by-mail provisions enacted across the county, such as removing the need for a reason to receive a mail ballot, or mailing all voters an application to sign up for it, had less effect on turnout, said McGhee, one of the report's authors.

The impact of receiving a mail ballot was felt especially by California voters who previously cast ballots in person at their local precinct. Turnout among those new mail voters increased by an estimated 10.6%, the study found.

Sending every voter a ballot is not a panacea for boosting voter participation in all elections, however.

Last week, just 21% of registered voters in San Diego's 79th Assembly District voted in a special election, despite every one of them receiving a ballot in the mail.

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"It is pretty consistent that turnout is lower for these special elections," said Cynthia Paes, San Diego's interim registrar of voters, who noted that 62,000 voters cast a mail ballot, compared with just 1,650 who showed up to vote in person.

"Our registered voters tend to appreciate the convenience of voting by mail," she added.

Some voting rights advocates argue that turnout is not the only benchmark for a successful election, and the PPIC report did not include data on turnout among specific demographic groups in 2020.

"When we’re thinking about who is most impacted by election policy, really look to folks like voters with disabilities," said Lucille Wenegieme, director of communications with the National Vote at Home Institute. "What we’ve seen year over year is that gap does close for voters with disabilities when you’re able to create more access to voting by mail."

A continuation of universal mail-in voting is likely in California, though some questions remain over how the system will work.

County registrars will likely request more money if they are asked to mail ballots as well as open voting locations in future years. And it remains to be seen whether changes to in-person voting piloted in 2020, such as requirements for some counties to open voting locations for multiple days, will be here to stay.

A coalition of voting rights groups has asked Berman to include funding in his bill for educational outreach about mail-in voting, along with options for voters to request translated ballots, and enhanced ballot tracking systems.

"While universal mailing of ballots is important to expand voter access, it is not without risks that may disproportionately impact underrepresented Californians and those to whom vote-by-mail is unfamiliar," said Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California.