Analysis

CA120: California well prepared for vote-by-mail in November

A California voter casts a ballot by mail. (Photo: vepar5, via Shutterstock)

When Californians went to the polls in March, the big news was the consolidation of the Democratic primary contest. Few would have expected that we were also effectively seeing the end of the primary election season — with subsequent elections throughout the spring either cancelled or run under the cloud of a viral pandemic.

Just last week we saw Wisconsin attempt to conduct an election in the COVID-19 era with horrendous results. Tens of thousands were disenfranchised by problems receiving or returning by-mail ballots. Millions more had to decide if they were willing to risk their health to exercise their voting rights, a decision no American should ever be asked to make.

Other states have postponed their elections, but even moving contests to later in April, May or June may be subject to stay-at-home orders or ongoing risks associated with large gatherings, such as standing around at a polling place.

While this is a daunting challenge, California is uniquely prepared.

There are some small special elections in California, but most of us won’t have to confront the issue of voting during a pandemic until November. But that is still seven months away and we can’t really predict the status of the coronavirus pandemic then.

As National Institutes of Allergy and Immunology director Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

This is a national issue, but also one implemented by each of the 50 states and, within each state, by individual counties. While this is a daunting challenge, California is uniquely prepared.

In a worst-case, but very plausible, scenario, the state would have to go to what is effectively an all-mail election system, one in which in-person voting would be reserved for those who have language barriers, disabilities, require in-person assistance, or need to complete a same-day registration.

This is the kind of election that Orange County effectively and safely conducted just last week in a special election in the city of Westminster.

Our increase in by-mail voting over the last two decades could be our saving grace. California has been gradually increasing voting by mail through changes to our election system and organic changes in voter preferences.

You could vote at any center in the county, regardless of where you lived, and get the correct ballot for your local races.

The first policy shift was the elimination of “excuse-based” voting by mail, thus allowing anyone to cast ballots by mail. Over the last decade, more than 65% of new registrants have taken the option of becoming permanent by-mail voters.

The second shift was the conversion to a “vote center” model for our elections. In 2018, five counties, including Sacramento, moved to a system where all voters are mailed ballots and there are local vote centers for those who need in-person options.

These vote centers were fewer in number than the old precinct-based polling places, but they had additional features — the primary one being that you could vote at any center in the county, regardless of where you lived, and get the correct ballot for your local races.

This vote-center model was expanded to 14 counties, plus a modified version in Los Angeles, expanding even further the expansion of voting by mail.

Combining all voters who are permanent by-mail or live in vote-center counties, the state has over 16 million voters, more than three-quarters of the registered population. They are already in a system that would be effective if this virus continues or re-emerges in the fall.

Unlike many other states, our voter registration system is predominantly done remotely.

There are another million voters in California who have previously voted by mail and aren’t included in that total — bringing the state to over 80% “prepared” for a shift to nearly full by-mail voting.

Getting the remaining 20% of the state to shift to a vote by mail system will still have its challenges.

However, we are fortunate as a state to be extremely close to a solution that will preserve the state’s ability to conduct a fair and open election, in sharp contrast to what voting rights experts are expecting in other states.

Campaigns will also need to adjust to an election without many opportunities for in-person engagement, but again, California is uniquely prepared for this change.

Unlike many other states, our voter registration system is predominantly done remotely.

In California, nearly 5 million voters registered or re-registered through online registration, the state’s automatic registration when voters use a change-of-address form, and the DMV.

With campaign software, volunteers don’t even need to step into a campaign office — they can be sent voter contact lists and phone scripts and make their calls or manage texting.

There could be a reduced DMV registration rate in the coming months, but with by-mail and online registration methods the state is still ready for high registration without the need for in-person registration by campaigns.

Meanwhile, campaigning, which has historically relied on in-person voter contact with rallies, events, and door-to-door engagement, has been moving much more to calls, emails, digital campaigning and texting.

With campaign software, volunteers don’t even need to step into a campaign office — they can be sent voter contact lists and phone scripts and make their calls or manage texting campaigns directly from their home computer linked to the campaign database.

Some of these engagements have been seen to be as effective as door-to-door campaigning and they should become the backbone of grassroots organizing in November.

Even traditional political mailers, targeted cable TV buys and broadcast media are still extremely effective. They are potentially more effective when we know voters are going to be at home to get that voter contact.

Other states are facing a massive crisis, but we are seeing a registration rate that is at historic highs.

Imagine any part of this pandemic without the internet, streaming services, Amazon or apps. Our technology has made the social distancing goals much more achievable for millions of Americans.

Similarly, our election system in California along with the recent changes in how campaigns are waged have made voting much more achievable, even if we have to make some significant one-time changes this November.

As with much of what we have seen with this crisis, California, either by its leadership or luck, has been a model for the country. This isn’t truer anywhere more than in our election system.

Other states are facing a massive crisis, but we are seeing a registration rate that is at historic highs, and a voter file that is more up-to-date and cleaner than it has been in decades (maybe ever).

California has more by-mail voters than anywhere in the country, and campaigns that are prepared to effectively communicate with voters and ensure our elections will successfully take place even during an unprecedented health crisis.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm.


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