The following article was originally published March 24, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.
Story by Libby Denkmann
When Governor Newsom signed an executive order last week to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on Southern California elections, he included this provision: counties must send mail-in ballots to all registered voters in three upcoming special elections.
The Orange County Registrar has already canceled in-person voting for the Apr. 7 Westminster City Council special recall election. Vote centers were scheduled to open this weekend for that contest.
"Pursuant to Governor Gavin Newsom's Executive Order (N-34-20), the generalized use of in-person voting may present risks to public health and safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and could risk undermining social distancing measures imposed by the State Public Health Officer," O.C. Registrar Neal Kelley said in a statement.
These moves give us a glimpse of what the future could hold: voting during a pandemic, when election officials have to weigh the risks of gathering at polling places versus the need to make voting accessible to everyone.
"We're having to adjust exactly how we administer the elections so that we maintain the right to vote but keep everybody as healthy as possible," said Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen argues that California and the rest of the country should be gearing up now to hold the November election under continuing threat from coronavirus.
"It's going to be a lot more vote-by-mail," Hasen said. "It's going to be more expensive — because this requires more scanners, more workers, more printers, postage, all those kinds of things."
Currently, every state allows some voters to cast ballots by snail mail — but most places make it a lot harder than California. In a third of states, you need to provide an excuse, like being out of town, to vote absentee. Expanding "no-excuse" vote-by-mail is one of the sticking points slowing congressional negotiations over coronavirus funding.
"All voters should have access to this in their states — and they should be able to sign up as permanent absentee voters," said UCLA professor Matt Barreto, co-founder of the UCLA Voting Rights Project.
The group published a report on Monday urging Congress to mandate that states receiving COVID-19 relief funding allow universal access to voting by mail.
The report also includes recommended steps to make in-person voting safer: marking off six feet of space between voters and workers, setting up sanitization stations, providing paper ballots and encouraging voters to bring their own pens, and removing senior care facilities or nursing homes from the list of in-person voting sites.
In other words, crowded conditions like those seen in L.A. County during the Mar. 3 primary, as the county initiated new voting locations and equipment, just won't do.
"We are going to need to come up with a system where people can still participate in democracy — but not while overcrowding and being around each other," Barreto said.
But California is already a model for the rest of the country when it comes to socially distanced elections, Padilla said. The state allows early voting, lets people register to vote online and provides an option to be a permanent mail-in voter.
California's electorate has been shifting towards mail-in voting for years, a process that's accelerated under the Voter's Choice Act, where counties are required to mail a ballot to every registered voter.
Los Angeles County has a one-time exemption from this requirement in 2020, but Padilla and the County Board of Supervisors have asked the L.A. County Registrar to explore expanding vote-by-mail to every voter in November.
Nearly two-thirds of Californians voted by mail in the 2018 general election, but Angelenos have traditionally preferred voting in person. Vote-by-mail participation in L.A. County was closer to 45 percent in 2018. Turnout numbers are still being finalized for the Mar. 3, 2020 presidential primary.
"There may be some additional costs that would need to be covered short-term given the emergency situation that we're in," Padilla said. Ultimately, according to the secretary of state, voting by mail with flexible in-person options is the most cost-effective model over the long-term.
A PROBLEM OF ACCESS AND EQUITY
Increasing the country's reliance on voting at the mailbox, instead of the ballot box, presents challenges to equity, Barreto said.
Racial minorities and younger voters see their ballots rejected at a much higher rate than white voters when voting by mail, according to a 2018 ACLU/University of Florida study. And those voters were also less likely to successfully get their ballots "cured" — fixed and accepted — after a signature mismatch is flagged.
The UCLA Voting Rights Project report recommended states standardize their signature verification process and give voters three weeks to cure their ballots if election workers reject them because of a signature problem.
"We want to make sure that there are safeguards in place so that everyone has their vote-by-mail ballot counted," Barreto said. "And so we're putting far fewer people in harm's way on election day for any in-person voting."
Thanks to a 2018 court ruling, California counties can't reject mail-in ballots without warning. County registrars now have to give voters a heads-up and at least a week to fix a signature mismatch and get their vote counted.
One more challenge presented with expanding vote-by-mail: cheating.
"Voter fraud is very rare, but when we do see election crimes they tend to happen with absentee ballots," Hasen said. A North Carolina congressional election was invalidated last year because a scheme was uncovered to collect and complete absentee ballots to help one candidate win.
"So it's important there are protections in place to make sure there's no tampering with absentee ballots," Hasen said.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Will counties be mailing a ballot to every California voter this fall?
We don't know yet. Padilla says his office is watching the upcoming California special elections and primaries in other states to help plan for the November general election.
"Because it can and will go on as scheduled," Padilla said.