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As Coronavirus threatens general election, California could be example for states expanding vote-by-mail

The coronavirus cases spreading across the country have already overturned the 2020 presidential campaign, forcing multiple states to postpone their primaries and raising fears that the November general election could be marred by the pandemic.

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Now states are rushing to expand the use of vote-by-mail, laying the groundwork for an unprecedented shift in voting procedures. California, which has massively ramped up its use of mail-in voting over the last few decades, could be a model for others to follow.

In Congress, lawmakers are debating a proposal from House Democrats to require states to allow mail-in voting and send $2 billion to election officials to help expand the process as part of a larger coronavirus relief package. But the idea has faced opposition from Republicans who argue that the bill should focus on economic relief, not voting rights.

California is ahead of the curve. While less than 20 percent of voters in the 1992 general election cast their ballot by mail, nearly two-thirds did during the 2018 election, according to state data. That’s likely to be even higher this year.

“It turns out that the policies California has put in place to increase access to the ballot also make perfect sense for conducting elections during a health pandemic,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in an interview. “We stand ready to assist any other states and share our experience with them on how best to do it.”

It’s possible that nearly every Californian will find a ballot in their mailbox this fall. In California’s presidential primary earlier this month, about 75 percent of voters received a mail-in ballot, Padilla said.

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Padilla has already called on Los Angeles County to send every voter a ballot, after the county experienced huge lines and other disruptions at some vote centers during the primary. While local officials haven’t committed to doing so, that would raise the statewide total to about 90 percent of voters statewide.

In the short term, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last week allowing vote-by-mail for three special elections coming up in the next few months and giving counties an additional 21 days to finish counting ballots from the March 3 primary. Padilla said those special elections would help inform any future efforts to further expand mail-in voting in November.

Whatever happens over the next few months, it’s highly unlikely that the November general election will be postponed. Federal law requires it to be held on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November,” and changing that would require the support of Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The Constitution also says that President Trump’s term ends at noon on January 20, 2021, so there’s no way for the president to extend his term in the event the election is impacted.

Around the country, election officials are scrambling to figure out a safe way for voters to make their choice in the middle of a pandemic — and vote-by-mail is looking like an attractive way for people to cast their ballots even if they’re stuck in their homes.

Already, five western states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conduct all-mail elections, sending every voter a ballot. Others like California are close behind.

But many other states don’t allow voters to cast ballots by mail unless they have an excuse for doing so, such as being out of town on Election Day. Some states would even require a constitutional change to adopt vote-by-mail practices like California’s.

In the Senate, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden have introduced a bill to require all states to allow voters to cast their ballots by mail and expand in-person early voting, mirroring provisions in the House Democratic proposal.

“No citizen in this country should have to pick between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health,” said Klobuchar, whose husband has tested positive for the virus.

But Republicans have pushed back against those proposals.

“What does forcing all states to have early voting have to do with coronavirus?” asked GOP Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland in a tweet.

Experts say that vote-by-mail can’t totally replace in-person voting, even during a dire health crisis. Research has found younger and minority voters less likely to feel comfortable voting by mail. And voters of color have been more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected for issues like their signature not matching one on record.

“If all states were going to send all voters a vote-by-mail ballot, we have serious concerns about whether every state would be able to ramp up appropriately without leaving voters inadvertently disenfranchised,” said Mindy Romero, the director of the UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project, who studies voting rights and turnout in California. She recommended also expanding the availability of in-person early voting.

The clock is ticking for states to make changes. Vast amounts of ballots and envelopes would need to be printed months in advance if more states expand vote-by-mail procedures, and others would have to change their laws even while some state legislatures have already recessed because of the virus.

Huge voter education programs would also be necessary to teach voters who are used to casting their ballots in person about new procedures.

Another big complication: many of the volunteers who typically staff polling places are elderly retirees who would be at elevated risk for the virus, and plenty of polling places are located inside retirement homes. If the virus is still raging in November, California may have to “recruit a new generation of poll workers,” Padilla said.

Padilla said he’d already heard from multiple elections officials around the country asking for advice for improving their own vote-by-mail programs.

And California has enacted plenty of reforms in recent years that other states could follow. Ballots are counted as long as they’re postmarked on election day, even if they arrive up to three days after election day. The state sends out return envelopes with prepaid postage, so voters don’t have to pay to send their ballots back. And voters are given the opportunity to fix issues with their ballot like mismatched signatures that come up during the counting process.

California has also done a good job at making sure ballots are available in languages other than English, said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.

“California has a lot of features that other states should look at very carefully,” Pérez said.

In the Bay Area, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties already send a ballot to every voter under procedures known as the Voter’s Choice Act. The other counties aren’t that far behind.

“Regardless of coronavirus, we’re seeing interest in our voters to move to permanent vote-by-mail,” said Tim Dupuis, the registrar for Alameda County. About 76 percent of voters in his county registered as permanent vote-by-mail voters, he said, adding that “I expect the number to surge again in November.”

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