Democrats advanced a major overhaul to California's elections on Thursday, voting to make sure all active registered voters will get a ballot in the mail at least 29 days before every election — even if they didn't ask for one.
A majority of California voters have been casting ballots by mail for years, but most of them had to ask their county elections office to send them one. That changed in 2020, when officials worried crowded polling places on Election Day would be superspreader events for the coronavirus.
California was one of four states — joining Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont — that temporarily changed rules for the 2020 presidential election to require all voters receive a ballot in the mail ahead of Election Day. California lawmakers kept that rule in place for 2021 elections, including the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 14.
Thursday, the state Senate voted to make that rule permanent. The state Assembly voted to do that months ago. But because the Senate made some changes to the proposal, the Assembly must vote on it one more time before sending it to Newsom, who will decide whether to sign it into law.
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Mailing ballots to all active registered voters in 2020 was controversial, especially with former President Donald Trump and his allies making false claims that widespread fraud would prevent him from winning. In general, more Democrats voted by mail in California while more Republicans voted in person on Election Day.
Republicans opposed the bill in the state Senate on Thursday, pointing to an incident last month where police in Los Angeles County found a man sleeping in a car with more than 300 unopened ballots for the Sept. 14 recall election. Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Republican from Fresno, said he received two ballots for the recall election in the mail — one at his primary residence and another one at his in-laws' house.
“So if I'm getting two ballots, I know others are getting multiple ballots as well, and that feeds into this narrative of distrust,” Borgeas said.
Sen. Tom Umberg, a Democrat from Santa Ana, noted even if people receive multiple ballots, they can't vote twice since the ballots are tracked with bar codes. He encouraged anyone who received multiple ballots in the mail to notify their county elections office, adding there were “virtually no reports of fraud” in the 2020 election.
“The only reason that there is distrust by anyone in our voting system is because of the unfounded, false conspiracy theories that are being spread on social media," said Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco. “Expanding the ability to vote, which is what we are doing today, that does not reduce trust.”
Historically, California has had no major fraud issues with mail-in ballots. In the 2020 election, which was the first time all active registered voters in California got a ballot in the mail, data shows nearly 71% of eligible voters cast ballots in California — the highest turnout of eligible voters since 1952, according to the Secretary of State's office.
That historic turnout was because of a number of factors, including voters being allowed to register to vote on Election Day and a temporary rule change giving county election officers more time to receive ballots in the mail.
California's state government does not print and mail ballots. That job falls to the state's 58 county governments, which vary in size and funding. Since most of the state's more than 22 million registered voters already vote by mail, this bill — if it becomes law — would require an additional 2.3 million ballots to be mailed for statewide elections.
The bill is one of multiple election-related measures pending in the final days of the legislative session, which ends Sept. 10. In the state Assembly on Thursday, lawmakers voted — again over Republican objections — to ban paying people based on the number of signatures they gather to put a state or local initiative or recall petition on the ballot.
It was proposed by Democratic Sen. Josh Newman, who himself was recalled in 2018 before he regained his seat two years later. Initiative organizers could still pay signature gatherers by the hour or provide a salary, but Newman argues that providing a “bounty” or incentive encourages gatherers to cheat by misleading people into signing.
It passed 42-16 in the 80-member Assembly and returns to the Senate for a final vote.
Republican Assemblyman James Gallagher objected that “this is getting in the way of grassroots activism."
“When you do this vital work, you should get paid for it,” he added.
At least six states — Arizona, Florida, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Dakota — already limit per-signature payments, according to a legislative analysis.