SACRAMENTO — California will take the unprecedented step of mailing a ballot to every active registered voter this fall after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Thursday intended to protect the November election against potential disruption by the coronavirus pandemic.
AB860 will also require county officials to count any ballot that is received within 17 days of the election, as long as it’s postmarked by election day. That’s two weeks longer than under current law, which sets a cutoff of the Friday after the election.
Newsom, who signed the bill without comment, tried to enact a similar mandate through executive order last month. His order requiring counties to send a mail ballot to every voter faces a legal challenge.
The changes do not remove the option to cast a ballot in person and would be in effect only for the 2020 general election.
Supporters said the bill was needed to provide protection to voters. Elections in other states since the coronavirus outbreak have been marred by understaffed polling places, long lines and fears that infection will spread among those forced to vote in person.
“California is moving in a swift, bipartisan manner to fortify our democracy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement. “Voting by mail has worked safely and securely in California for decades. Mailing every voter a ballot for this election is simply common sense.”
Despite objections by some Republican groups that expanding mail voting was a power grab by Democrats, AB860 passed the Assembly earlier Thursday by a bipartisan vote of 63-2.
“No one should have to risk their health and possibly their life to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said Assemblyman Marc Berman, the Palo Alto Democrat who carried AB860. “This will ensure that every California voter has the option to vote from the safety of their own home.”
Among those who supported the bill were two Republican legislators who recently sued to stop Newsom’s executive order, saying the governor had overstepped his emergency powers under the pandemic.
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus (Sutter County), said the mail ballot measure was not perfect, but he was comforted by amendments that were adopted to exclude inactive voters. Republicans have argued that is a safeguard necessary to prevent fraud.
In general, an active voter is anyone who has participated in an election in the previous four years.
“It’s important that these things are not done by an executive order, changing elections codes and statutes unilaterally but rather the Legislature is the one that needs to do this work,” Gallagher said.
A Sacramento appellate judge gave the governor a boost Wednesday when he blocked a temporary restraining order in the lawsuit filed by Gallagher and Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Rocklin (Placer County).
The order issued last week by a Sutter County Superior Court judge was aimed at Newsom’s June 3 executive order calling for mail ballots as well as in-person vote centers.
It set a June 26 hearing in Yuba City to determine whether Newsom should be stopped from “further exercising any legislative powers in violation of the California Constitution ... specifically from unilaterally amending, altering or changing existing statutory law or making new statutory law.”
The new two-sentence order by Presiding Judge Vance Raye of the Third District Court of Appeal stayed the restraining order but allowed the hearing to go forward.