California Passes Bill to Mail Ballots to All Voters

The California Capitol building.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Solidifying an order he made last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation Thursday requiring counties to mail ballots to every registered voter for the November election due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill codifies Newsom’s May directive and is intended to prevent crowded polling stations and encourage Californians to vote early and by mail this fall. It requires local elections officials to mail all active registered voters ballots ahead of the presidential election and allows them to begin processing returns four weeks before Election Day.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla says widespread mail balloting is “simply common sense.”

“Expanding vote-by-mail statewide is a necessity to protect our right to vote and our public health,” Padilla said in a statement. “Voting by mail has worked safely and securely in California for decades.”

Newsom issued the order on May 8, saying the provision was needed to quell voters and volunteers worried about contracting the coronavirus at polling sites. He said California’s over 20 million registered voters shouldn’t have to wade into a “concentrated dense environment to cast their vote.” He followed the order up with another directive intended to allow counties to quickly make adjustments and prepare for the changes. 

The moves were criticized by President Donald Trump on Twitter and later challenged in court by California Republicans.

Former Congressman Darrell Issa accused Newsom in federal court of “blindly mailing out ballots” and raising the possibility of chaos and voting fraud come Election Day. Two Republican assemblymen have since filed a separate lawsuit, claiming Newsom lacked the authority to make wholesale changes to the statewide election and should have pursued the changes through the Legislature. 

Thursday’s passage of Assembly Bill 860, however, does just that by effectively enshrining the bulk of Newsom’s election changes. The bill was approved earlier Thursday by the Assembly in a bipartisan 63–3 vote, including a yes vote from one of the Republicans suing Newsom. 

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, thanked Newsom for signing the bill just hours after it reached his desk.

“In the midst of a deadly health pandemic, mailing a ballot to every California voter, and giving them the opportunity to vote from the safety of their own home, is the responsible thing to do. No Californian should have to risk their health — and possibly their life — to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Berman said in a statement.

Lawmakers are expected in the coming weeks to pass a companion measure that outlines the minimum number of in-person voting options and ballot drop off locations counties need to provide on Election Day. All voters are slated to receive a ballot but traditional in-person voting will still be available under the order.

Along with mail ballots for all voters, AB 860 requires county elections officials to implement and offer a tracking system to provide interested voters with updates about the status of their ballots via text message or email. It also extends the length of time officials can count ballots postmarked on or before Election Day that arrive late from three days to 17 days. 

The popularity of absentee voting continues to grow in the nation’s largest state, as 78% of voters in the March primary signed up to receive mail-in-ballots.

According to Padilla’s primary voter statement, 13 of 15 counties that sent every registered voter a ballot in the mail and allowed them to vote at any polling center exceeded the statewide turnout. Meanwhile 72% of the record high 9.6 million votes cast in California on Super Tuesday were by mail.

“California is moving in a swift, bipartisan manner to fortify our democracy in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Padilla said Thursday of the election changes.

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