(CN) — This November will be one of the first presidential elections in recent memory where voters cast their ballots during a global pandemic, and many will be doing so by mail.
President Donald Trump has attacked mail-in ballots and accused Democrats of trying to engineer the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to steal the election. But a study published Wednesday says more mail voting does not favor Democrats or Republicans in California.
How voters cast their ballots in the upcoming general election could be radically different depending on where they live. In its study, the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California found 15 counties in the Golden State are uniquely positioned because they adopted a higher level of voting-by-mail under the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) of 2016.
In California, voters will receive ballots in the mail and requirements for in-person voting locations will be relaxed. Earlier this month, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced 21 million people are registered to vote in the Golden State. But in Louisiana, election officials have argued in federal court that the virus is not a valid reason to issue ballots by mail.
Those select 15 California counties that follow the VCA model can offer vote centers, which are consolidated voting locations, and every voter can receive their ballot in the mail.
Voters are not restricted to a polling place in their local neighborhood. And vote centers are open for 10 days leading up to Election Day to alleviate crowds at the polls, which is ideal given Covid-19 restrictions.
In the PPIC report “How Greater Vote-by-Mail Influences California Voter Turnout,” researchers analyzed two California counties that have used the modified voting model.
Orange County used the VCA process for the first time during the primary election in March. Sacramento County has used it for the 2018 and 2020 primaries and the 2018 mid-term general election.
Mailing in ballots has been the plurality choice in both counties, with 48% choosing that option in Orange and 34% in Sacramento. Fewer voters dropped off their ballot in person between both counties, while more voted in person in Orange than in Sacramento County according to study.
Historically, Orange County was a conservative Republican bastion in a deep-blue state. But the latest data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters shows that 34% of voters are registered Republicans and about 37% are registered Democrats.
Meanwhile, the two VCA counties saw higher turnout especially by registered voters who said they preferred voting in person, while non-English speaking voters and senior voters used mail voting at higher rate. That mail-in group doesn’t show any significant differences by race or ethnicity, but in the 2018 primary, Latino and Asian American registered voters who prefer to vote by mail turned out in smaller numbers according to the PPIC study.
There was also a general decline among new and young voters in the 2020 primaries and there was a decline or barely an increase for foreign-language voters who prefer in-person voting and for tenants who rent and prefer vote by-mail.
In recent months, the Trump administration has sought to shakeup the U.S. Postal Service ahead of the general election where voters will decide if Trump will remain in office.
Those delays have prompted numerous lawsuits against the federal government and in a statement California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the Trump administration’s moves against the USPS are “un-American” and “an attack on free and fair elections and our right to vote.”
The PPIC study says the VCA effect on turnout in Orange and Sacramento counties shows that the difference between parties is minimal, which is the basis for Trump’s attacks against Democrats and his challenger former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Across both in-person and by-mail voters and both elections, partisans vote at higher rates under the VCA, but the differences between the parties in this increase are small and favor different parties in different elections,” write the study authors.
Turnout is between one and four points higher under the VCA model says the study authors.
Now under the specter of the coronavirus, trends may be pushed by different behaviors, according to the study.
“Voters may want to vote earlier to avoid the crowds associated with higher risk of virus transmission,” the study authors wrote.
In California, the deadline for county officials to receive ballots postmarked on or before Election Day is extended to 17 days after the election.
But getting the word on updates about the voting process out to the public will require a coordinated outreach to different groups of voters. That means using ethnic media for certain groups of voters, while first-time and low-propensity voters may rely on official communications.
Social media might be the only way to reach young voters, via SnapChat, Instagram and TikTok. But what researchers call deep engagement may be lost under the changes due to Covid-19, the study authors said.