Inside California's Pandemic Election: How COVID-19 Changes Could Shape the Future of Voting

By Guy Marzorati,
November 13, 2020


Election officials across California are breathing a sigh of relief: An election that combined unprecedented changes and unmatched scrutiny amid a global pandemic resulted in historic levels of participation and few widespread issues.

Some features of this year's vote will hopefully go down as historical aberrations, like poll workers in protective gear and masked voters physically distanced in voting locations stocked with hand sanitizer.

Other alterations brought on by the coronavirus — such as the expansion of voting by mail and the shift away from assigned polling places — could spur long lasting changes to the way in which Californians cast their ballots.

In interviews with KQED, more than a dozen election officials and voting advocates agreed that California's recent election in the midst of a pandemic was a success, despite a tight timeline for changes and a few hiccups.

"This is one of the smoothest elections that I've had," said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters for Orange County. "I really believe we were as best prepared for a pandemic as we could ever be.

In some ways, the pandemic merely accelerated voting changes already in the works under Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat.

Roughly three-quarters of voters received vote-by-mail ballots even before the pandemic. And 15 counties had previously abandoned precinct polling locations in favor of the Voters Choice Act model — sending a ballot to every voter and opening county-wide vote centers where any voter could cast a ballot.

But election officials faced unprecedented pressures in 2020: The logistical issues brought on by the virus were combined with attacks  on the voting process by national Republicans.

"It was a perfect storm," said Padilla, who added that the increased focus on election administration did have a positive effect: It sharpened the public's attention to voting rules and deadlines.

"If it helped increase registration and turnout as a result, then I think that is great for democracy at the end of the day," he said. 

'Despite the pandemic, this turned out to be a very successful election year and could very well serve as a model, not just for statewide adoption going forward, but for states across the country.'Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State

In addition, counties finally had the money they needed to conduct elections, through funding from the federal CARES Act, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

And expanding vote-by-mail to every voter allowed advocates to broadcast one set of instructions across the entire state.

"We never had the ability before this election to provide that kind of uniform message to all voters," Alexander said. 

The result was record participation: More than 16 million Californians cast ballots, with three-quarters of votes cast before Election Day.

State lawmakers are already eyeing the possibility of making some of the pandemic-related changes permanent. (Full Story)