By Kammi Foote & Kim Alexander | Special to CalMatters
The November election is just five months away, yet there is still uncertainty about how Californians will be voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Counties and voters need guidance now, before we run out of time to make necessary changes to have a safe and secure election. The longer we wait, the more room for error and confusion.
Voters should be assured they need not choose between their health and democracy. In California, anyone can request a ballot be sent to them through the mail. Nearly three-fourths of primary voters in March cast vote-by-mail ballots, returned by mail or in person to a drop box or voting location.
Meanwhile, two bills are making their way through the Legislature: Assembly Bill 860, by Palo Alto Democratic Assemblymember Marc Berman, would codify the governor’s executive order to mail every voter a ballot, while Senate Bill 423, by Santa Ana Democratic state Sen. Tom Umberg, was recently amended to provide options for consolidated polling places with multiple days of in-person voting.
Advocacy organizations, legislative leaders, labor groups, political parties and election officials have voiced their recommendations – which vary from expanding in-person voting days, allowing any voter to receive an electronic ballot and extending voter registration and ballot issuance deadlines.
We can argue the merits of expanding existing services, but the reality is that counties are heading into this election with reduced budgets and a significantly decreased number of available poll workers, many of whom are in COVID-19-vulnerable age groups. Election officials face a huge challenge obtaining commitments from long-standing voting sites and an even bigger one identifying facilities that would allow for additional days of in-person voting.
California is a diverse state, with a diverse voting population. Three counties vote entirely by mail, 15 operate under the “Voter’s Choice Act” with a combination of ballots mailed to all registered voters and county-wide vote centers open over multiple days, and the remaining 40 have traditional neighborhood polling places, allowing anyone to receive a mailed ballot upon request.
There is not a single statewide voting system now, and while a more uniform statewide voting system is a desirable future goal, the best strategy for November is to give counties flexibility and avoid making significant changes right before a major election that can confuse voters and undermine the integrity of the voting process. As redrafted, SB 423 provides a framework for the kind of flexibility counties and voters alike will need.
The Legislature should quickly act on AB 860 and SB 423, so that there is certainty and voter education can begin immediately.
Counties should strive to maintain their current number of in-person voting sites, with some flexibility allowing for greater consolidation of voting locations, if needed, due to inability to find staff and/or facilities. The 15 counties with the Voter’s Choice Act counties should be allowed to reduce in-person voting from 11 to four days if they need to, which is what the data supports based on past voter behavior and SB 423 proposes to do.
All counties currently offer 29 days of in-person voter services at their elections and satellite offices. Counties should be encouraged to expand those in-person locations and hours, especially the weekend before Nov. 3, as resources allow. State funding should be provided to help pay the cost of mailing all voters a ballot and to pay for the personal protective equipment needed to safely facilitate in-person voting.
This presidential election will be challenging for voters, candidates and the election officials who are responsible for safeguarding it. Working collaboratively, we can ensure that we are able to meet every voter’s needs, while also maintaining the integrity, health and safety of our democracy. All votes will be protected, whether cast in person or by mail. But we should not be asking more from counties than they can give.
Kammi Foote is the Inyo County Registrar of Voters, firstname.lastname@example.org. Kim Alexander is president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, email@example.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.