How California reached historic voter turnout despite pandemic, distrust

By Lewis Griswold,
CAL Matters,
November 24, 2020


Californians faced the naysayers and voted by mail in record numbers this election, potentially avoiding a pandemic super spreader event and showing the nation it could be done.

CalMatters interviewed voting officials in most of the state’s 58 counties and their verdict is in: The experiment with voting by mail saw few glitches, little drama and, instead, might well provide a blueprint for future elections across the country.

Indeed, state officials are already talking about plans to make voting by mail permanent for the biggest state in the union and its 22 million registered voters.

Besides the unprecedented challenge of conducting the election in a pandemic, voting officials also had to deal with a deep, partisan divide that helped to fuel widespread misinformation about election security.

Yet by the time polls closed at 8 p.m. Nov. 3, voter registrars say they had little need for law enforcement help and reported insignificant incidents affecting ballot safety. They reported historic numbers of ballots cast, about 17.6 million at last count, and almost 208,000 more still to process as of 5 p.m. Monday.

Upping the ante on mailed ballots

Vote by mail got a jump-start four years ago when the Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act, launching a pilot project of select counties in 2018 and allowing any county, starting in 2020, to send a ballot to every voter. Voters could choose to mail in their ballots, place them in a drop box, or vote in person. County-wide vote centers — one for every 10% of registered voters in larger counties — replaced neighborhood polling places. 

At the time, few were talking about how to survive a pandemic. The bill instead was intended to increase voter turnout by making voting more convenient.

“In a strange way we were extra prepared,” said the voting law’s author, Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). “It was fortuitous that we passed this and got it off the ground when COVID struck.”

In 2018, five counties went with the new model — Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo. This year, ten more counties joined them — Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Orange, Santa Clara, and Tuolumne.

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Momentum is building to make statewide vote by mail permanent in California.

Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park and chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting, said Nov. 9 he would introduce legislation next year to require all active registered voters be mailed a ballot for future elections.

The success of early voting — more than half of the mail ballots were returned by election day — prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to say he’d support making it permanent.

“We’ll discuss that with the Legislature, but I think making voting easier, providing more choice and more opportunity is fabulous,” he said on election day.

Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, both Democrats, also said they liked the idea.

If Berman’s proposal gains traction, the Legislature should come up with the money to help counties pay for mail balloting and vote centers, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation advocacy group.

“The idea has merit but you have to talk about funding,” she said. “I didn’t see that in the announcement.”

Federal CARES Act money, provided to help cover the costs of the pandemic, helped pay the costs of mailing ballots to every voter. “That’s not going to be there next time,” she said.

And the Voter’s Choice Act model needs “refinements,” she said. She pointed to the requirement that some centers be open for 11 days so voters can cast their ballot at their convenience. Registrars surveyed by CalMatters also said the requirement should be scaled back, because they didn’t get enough traffic to justify the cost. 

California joins states with high turnout

The final numbers are not in, but voter turnout in California reached 80% as of Monday. Voter turnout last topped 80% in 1972 and 1976, according to California Secretary of State data. 

More recent high turnout years show 75% in 2016 and 79% in 2008. 

Did mailing each registered voter a ballot increase voter turnout? Probably, said Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, who specializes in election administration.

“If we look at the data nationally, states that conduct all-mail (Oregon) or nearly all-mail (Colorado and Washington) elections have among the highest turnout rates in the country,” she said.

For clues in California, she looked at Voter’s Choice Act counties where all voters were mailed ballots in earlier elections. (Full Story)