The COVID-19 pandemic is a booster rocket for advocates of completely shifting the nation’s elections to mailed-in ballots.
Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, cited warnings of a prolonged pandemic in tweeting recently, “It’s a stark reality that should motivate Congress to provide states with the funding they need to execute accessible, secure, and safe, elections in November.”
Congressional Democrats are trying to fulfill that wish, but Republicans see it as a partisan maneuver and raise the specter of widespread vote fraud.
Regardless of what happens nationally, California is headed toward vote-by-mail. For the past four decades, California has been loosening restrictions on what used to be called absentee voting and changing laws on voter registration and other election procedures.
Today, the vast majority of California’s votes are cast by mail, so making it universal for November would seem to be a fairly easy process.
“In a worst-case, but very plausible, scenario, the state would have to go to what is effectively an all-mail election system, one in which in-person voting would be reserved for those who have language barriers, disabilities, require in-person assistance, or need to complete a same-day registration,” election data guru Paul Mitchell said in a recent newspaper article.
What’s Not to Like About All-Mail Voting?
“Our increase in by-mail voting over the last two decades could be our saving grace,” Mitchell added.
Democrats do believe that mail voting will help them win close elections, and Republicans fear that they are right. However, the Public Policy Institute of California, in a recent report, contends that those hopes and fears may be misplaced, saying, “these scenarios describe the status quo; they don’t tell us how election results might change if vote by mail became more widely available. When election jurisdictions — including some California counties — have rapidly expanded vote by mail, neither major party has clearly benefited.”
So what’s not to like about all-mail voting?
One worrisome factor is that mail voting, coupled with same-day registration and provisional ballots, not only creates an election month, rather than an election day, but has meant weeks-long delays in vote-counting. Voting in the March 3 presidential primary began in early February and final tallies weren’t completed until last week, after Gov. Gavin Newsom gave officials an additional three weeks.
Another potential problem is that local election officials gain a huge amount of power to affect close elections by deciding which mail ballots are valid, as shown by what’s happening in San Joaquin County regarding a three-way contest for the 13th Assembly District.
There’s Nothing Wrong per se With Mail Voting
Second place — and thus a spot on the November ballot — was decided by 30 votes in a final report issued by the county’s registrar of voters, Melinda Dubroff, on April 5, even though Newsom’s order gave her until April 24 to complete the count. The candidate on the short end complained that in her rush, Dubroff disregarded affidavits from 32 voters that their ballots had been improperly discarded, and the situation may wind up in the courts.
Finally, there’s “ballot harvesting,” which Democrats used two years ago to capture congressional seats in Southern California. It refers to party workers collecting ballots in person, on the promise to deliver them for counting. It’s illegal in some states but is authorized in California by a law former Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2016.
Vote harvesting is not fraud unto itself but could be manipulated to make a difference in close elections, essentially violating the sanctity of the voting booth.
There’s nothing wrong per se with mail voting. But it should be a step forward, not backward.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.