How Do We Vote in the COVID-19 Era? California Carves a Path Forward

June 10, 2020 | 7:52 am
Michael Latner
Senior Voting Rights Fellow

UPDATE (August 7, 2020): Governor Newsom signed into law SB 423 on August 6 and earlier this summer signed AB 860 (on June 18). A coalition of advocacy, labor, immigration, women’s health, youth, democracy rights, science, and environmental organizations celebrates the leadership of Senator Umberg, Assemblymember Berman, Governor Newsom, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla to safe and secure voting access for all Californians. Communities of color are being hit the hardest by three historic crises—COVID-19, the resulting economic recession, and the crisis of racist police violence and power abuses. As described below, with these two new laws, California is once again demonstrating for the rest of the country how to uphold and bolster authentic democracy. These two new laws lay out critical protections to ensure that voting will be safe, secure, and accessible this November. We should celebrate this progress towards a safe election, and recognize that there is still more work to do to ensure that these new laws are well implemented at the local level, to register and educate voters, and to ensure voters are not disenfranchised.

On May 6th, California State Senator Tom Umberg and Assemblymember Marc Berman introduced a legislative package intended to ensure the integrity of the November election under COVID-19 pandemic conditions. Assembly Bill 860 (AB860) and Senate Bill 423 (SB423), if passed, would provide many of the infrastructure adaptations and procedural requirements that counties need in order to ensure a safe and secure election for California voters. Many of the components embody what a healthier democracy would look like for the country as a whole, a model for other states to follow.

During this time of national crisis, all Americans need to reconsider our political system’s capacity to achieve political equality for all.

The bills include:

Universal vote-by-mail. Every active registered voter will receive a ballot in the mail, as voters in Washington and Oregon have for years. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the nation’s top election scholars, and voting rights groups across the country have urged shifting voters to vote-by-mail this November as the safest way to reduce in-person Election Day voting congestion, where people are in close proximity and at greater risk to COVID-19 exposure. Research shows that states with more options for voters have shorter lines on Election Day, and more people have been voting by mail across the United States for decades, including nearly two-thirds of California voters in 2018.

Ballot tracking. All Californians will be able to track their ballots from when it is mailed, to when it is received by county election officials and when it is counted. Already available in 29 counties, the tracking system will provide extra security and accountability for millions of voters new to vote-by-mail. The service, provided by Ballottrax, allows voters to sign up to receive emails, text, or voice call notifications.

Early in-person voting and drop boxes. Californians will still have the option of using a voting machine if necessary. Several counties have already adopted the “vote center” model from the Voters Choice Act (VCA), which provides a full service, fully staffed location for every 10,000 registered voters, allowing people to register, drop off a ballot, or cast a vote, regardless of where they live in the county. Under the new law, non-VCA counties would be allowed to establish vote centers or consolidate adjacent precincts, with one polling place per 10,000 registered voters. Every country will be required to have polling places in operation for a minimum of 3 days prior to Election Day. The Secretary of State will be responsible overseeing such consolidation.

All counties must provide secure ballot drop-off boxes, one for every 15,000 voters, for approximately one month before election. Both early in-person voting and drop box options for voters will aid in “flattening the curve” of Election Day turnout. Drive-through and curbside voting options are also encouraged, and all election workers will be provided training for compliance with public health and sanitation guidelines. Instead of Election Day, the state will effectively be providing an “Election Month.”

Public education. The legislation also requires counties and the Secretary of State to deploy a public education campaign to inform voters about their new options and the changes to voting systems. This is one of the more crucial elements of any COVID-19 election strategy, as political science has also shown that changes to polling locations and other system components can result in confusion and reduce turnout. UCS and other voting rights organizations are urging state lawmakers to dedicate $250 million in the coming year’s budget to support these public education efforts.

The bills do not include:

Additional requirements that would reduce waiting times. Political scientists have repeatedly shown that the burden of long lines and wait times is not distributed equally among voters. Urban, densely populated districts, communities of color and non-English speaking communities, voters with disabilities, and ironically, those using early in-person voting, more frequently encounter problems with voting, crowded polling places, and longer waiting times.

While it would be more costly, it would also be more effective to require all non-VCA counties to establish vote centers, rather than just consolidated precincts, so that voters can cast a correct ballot at any county location. Further, while the new legislation encourages counties to follow VCA regulations for the placement of polling places, machinery and workers, the legislation does not clearly specify that drop boxes and in-person polling places use election data to target locations with a history of low vote-by-mail usage.

Public comment. County requirements for public review, public comment, and deadlines for polling place selection, or possible exemptions from these requirements, are not clearly spelled out. The communities that are less likely to use vote-by-mail are also most at risk for COVID-19, so it is imperative that we provide every opportunity to lower barriers to voting where it is most needed.

Endemic problems with counting ballots. California takes a long time to count ballots, and the number of mail ballots rejected is higher than in many other states. There are also racial, age and language disparities in vote-by-mail and ballot rejection rates that are especially concerning given the anticipated surge in new vote-by-mail voters. The legislation does not address how ballot processing and verification practices could be improved.

Scaling up our election infrastructure and educating the public about these changes will require a massive influx of resources for state and local agencies, and California is taking the lead. However, the federal government has appropriated only $400 million of what is estimated to be a $4 billion need for the nation to prepare for a general election under the threat of COVID-19. Congress needs to take action now and pass the next phase of COVID-19 relief, currently under consideration, while there is still time.

The country has a long way to go, but California is providing a path to a safe and secure election.

Editor’s note: The original version of this post incorrectly stated the California budget request. $250 million is the correct amount.