Though it may be hard to imagine now, sometime in the not distant future, the emergency measures adopted this year to control the spread of COVID-19 will no longer be necessary. But California would benefit by keeping at least one of them in place for good: mailing a ballot to every active registered voter in the state.
When it became clear this spring that the pandemic was not likely to end before the Nov. 3 election, lawmakers acted to ensure that all active registered voters in California could participate without risking infection. Counties were directed to mail ballots to all voters, whether they requested one or not, and, with an onslaught of mail ballots expected, were allowed to start processing ballots extra early. The state also extended the grace period for mailed-in ballots to 17 days.
It was a wise move that paid off. By all measures, the Nov. 3 election in California was held successfully, despite all the wild-eyed stories and false tales of mail ballot fraud spread by the president and his loyalists. (In the end, the only potential large-scale voting fraud in California was perpetrated by the California Republican Party, which set up dozens of phony ballot drop boxes in violation of state law.)
Nearly 18 million Californians voted in this election, more than ever before. So many Californians voted early — motivated, perhaps, by the stories about possible mail delivery delays — that election day was relatively calm, with only a few long lines reported around the state. This is exactly how every election should go, pandemic or not. Why backtrack now?
That’s what Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), chairman of the Assembly Elections Committee, thinks too. He has proposed legislation to require counties to automatically send mail ballots to all active registered voters (some already do) and to offer tracking services so voters can make sure their ballots are received. This wouldn’t end in-person voting for those who need assistance or enjoy casting their ballot in the company of others, but it would let voters easily choose how and where they vote.
This change would only hasten a trend well underway in California. In the last four statewide general elections, most voters used mail ballots. Even without the emergency legislation this year, about 75% of the state’s voters would have been mailed a ballot, and about 90% of registered voters would be receiving a mail ballot in future elections, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
It just makes sense to standardize this clearly popular voting choice. It’s where California has been headed since the Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act in 2016 and allowed counties to ditch the traditional model of in-person voting on election day at many small precincts in favor of centralized vote centers where ballots could be dropped off or cast in person well in advance. Fifteen counties, Los Angeles County among them, have adopted those provisions.
But we need ballot drop boxes too. The Voter’s Choice Act doesn’t require counties to deploy them, but drop boxes should be mandatory if we move to universal mail ballots. In Los Angeles County, drop boxes were wildly popular — more than half of the 3.4 million mail ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election were collected that way.
Another election problem that lawmakers should fix: This year’s emergency arrangement notwithstanding, California law provides a grace period of only three days for ballots to arrive after the election (they must be postmarked by election day to be counted). That seems too short, given that it takes the Postal Service up to a week to deliver first-class mail.
And for heaven’s sake, lawmakers really ought to revise the 2016 law that allows unlimited third-party collection of ballots, or “ballot harvesting.” Previously, only a member of the family or household could deliver a ballot on behalf of a registered voter. We were worried about the potential for misuse even before it was used to justify the GOP’s fake drop boxes. We have no doubt that in future elections, there will be other creative uses of this law that undermine trust in democracy.
While we’re making an election reform wish list, Congress should use its authority over the “times, places and manner” of federal elections to standardize procedures for collecting and processing mail ballots. Ideally, those standards would look like those in California, where officials have gone out of their way to make voting easier and smoother — and are still looking for ways to do it better.