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California Adopts Vote-by-Mail System for All Future Elections

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A hand slides a ballot into a blue postal box.
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 voters will continue to automatically receive ballots in the mail in all future state and local elections, under a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.

After experimenting with a universal vote-by-mail system during the coronavirus pandemic — resulting in near-record high turnout — California will now become the eighth state in the U.S. to make the change permanent.

“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections' integrity and transparency,” said Newsom in a statement announcing his intention to sign Assembly Bill 37.

The move was applauded by voting rights advocates who credit the system with simplifying the voting process for Californians. Ballots are mailed out a month before elections and can be returned to county drop boxes, to voting sites or through the Postal Service, at no charge.

A study released by the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, earlier this year found that mailing voters a ballot by default was the most effective prescription for boosting voter participation.

"The larger turnout that we saw in the recall election, the general election for 2020 that was the greatest [turnout] we had since Harry Truman was president — these are good things," Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, who wrote the law, told KQED.

"I don't care who you vote for, I just want you to vote," Berman added. "And mailing a ballot to everybody makes it easier for them to vote and that's something that's good for California."

Universal mail-in voting, however, is not a permanent cure for voter apathy, as evidenced by a handful of special legislative elections this year in which fewer than a third of registered voters cast ballots, despite everybody receiving one.

But in this month's recall election, millions of ballots were cast before Election Day, helping push voter turnout to 57%, higher than some regularly scheduled gubernatorial votes in the past.


"Vote-by-mail has significantly increased participation of eligible voters," said Secretary of State Shirley Weber, in a statement. "Voters like having options for returning their ballot whether by mail, at a secure drop box, a voting center or at a traditional polling station."

Sending every voter a ballot with prepaid postage also has driven up the cost of elections in the state. The recent recall vote cost at least $276 million, according to estimates compiled by the state Department of Finance. And counties likely will need financial assistance from the state to cover the cost of future all-mail elections.

Staff for the state Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated that the new law will result in counties mailing ballots to 2.3 million additional registered voters — those who had not previously opted to vote by mail — at an additional cost of $4 million for printing and mailing.

In future elections, voters will still be able to cast ballots in person, even as an increasing number of Californians prefer to fill out their ballots at home — an option available to all voters in the state since 1979.

A decade ago, a majority of voters still cast their ballots at traditional polling places. The shift to vote by mail has accelerated since then, particularly in the last five years, when more than a dozen counties began sending ballots to voters by default, under the 2016 Voter’s Choice Act.

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Last year, after Newsom signed legislation to pilot a universal vote-by-mail system in the 2020 election, 86% of voters cast a mail ballot. In February, the vote-by-mail expansion was extended through the end of 2021.

None of the 28 Republicans in the state Legislature voted for AB 37, continuing the partisan divide over voting by mail that widened after the 2020 election.

Mail-in voting has not been shown to favor either political party at the polls, and Republicans in California have historically embraced it. In 2020, nine GOP legislators voted for a bill to send all voters a ballot by default for that year’s general election.

But in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded attacks on universal mail-in voting (which he claims, without evidence, is rife with fraud), just 13% of Republicans in California now have a great deal of confidence in the state’s voting system, according to a PPIC poll out this month.

"I was really happy that we had bipartisan support in 2020 and I was pretty frustrated that we didn't have that in 2021," said Berman. "I believe that there were Republicans that wanted to vote for this bill but who felt the pressure from their party and from the far right to not support it."

As AB 37 made its way through the Legislature, Republicans argued that an expansion of mail-in balloting was not necessary as the pandemic receded in the state and returning to the polls poised less of a health risk.

As the state shifts from Election Day voting to a month of mail-in ballot casting, the bill signed by Newsom also expands the window for county election officials to process ballots.

Election workers will be able to prepare ballots for counting (but not actually tally the results) up to 30 days before Election Day, adding time to review the signatures voters fill out on their ballot envelopes. The new law also allows county registrars to count ballots received up to seven days after polls close, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day.

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