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Is California ready for Election2020?
The spread of Covid 19 changed the rules for Californians heading to the polls in November. Vote by mail, historically a common practice for registered voters in California, has steadily grown in popularity, but the pandemic is forcing a dramatic surge in absentee voting. In the March primaries, almost 72% of ballots were cast by mail even before the full impact of the Covid pandemic hit the state.
After pledging to switch to all-mail elections to protect Californians from coronavirus health risks with in-person voting, Gov. Gavin Newsom is readying the Golden State for an influx of mail-in voting.
In early May he ordered all counties to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter for the November election, noting that “No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote.”
The directive was immediately challenged by in court by conservative groups who argued this was “an unlawful attempt to supersede and replace California election law.” Newsom cleared that hurdle in June when he signed Assembly Bill 860 into law with bipartisan support from the State Assembly, effectively giving every Californian voter the option to vote safely from their home.
Yet, even as California moves ahead with its mail-out ballot plans, the process is under scrutiny from constituents concerned about voting safeguards, and under attack from President Trump who has claimed that mail-in voting “will lead to massive fraud and abuse.”
However, voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the country, countered Alex Padilla, California Secretary of State and Chief Elections Officer, cautioning people from voting twice because “ its breaking state and federal law.”
At a national briefing on September 9 hosted by Ethnic Media Services, he explained how California was getting ready for Election Day.
“We want to make sure that elections are both accessible and secure. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to make sure that the voting experience is one that is safe, and protects the health of both voters and election workers.”
California has countered misinformation and disinformation over the last four years to secure its voting infrastructure, voter databases, balloting systems, and to protect against cyber threats. “California leads the nation when it comes to security,” said Padilla.
The goal this election year is to ensure transparency and accountability in the electoral process and grow confidence in vote by mail, said Padilla, who has worked with state election officials in all 58 counties, voting rights advocates, and other stakeholders, to make sure the electoral process rolls out smoothly.
California has over 21 thousand registered voters and the largest and most diverse electorate, with voters from all “types and backgrounds, language preferences, and cultural experiences… so it’s our job to make sure that we’re communicating in the many formats, in the many ways that are respectful but also effective, for eligible voters to know what their options are,” stated Padilla.
Election officials want to ensure voter access and safety in the midst of the pandemic, so decades-long practices like vote by mail have guided their approach. New enhancements include sending every active registered voter a mail-in ballot by early October. Ballots will go out to citizens abroad by October 5, while military voters will be sent ballots 45 days before the election.
California will count ballots postmarked by election day and received 17 days following the election. Voters can mail or deliver their ballots to a dropbox or polling station, and sign up to ‘Where’s My Ballot?’ to track their ballot and receive status alerts by SMS, email or voice.
To protect the integrity of vote by mail, California offers distinguishing features that guard against fake ballots – prepaid postage, election specific watermarks and unique barcodes on official envelopes, and scanning to ensure that each voter didn’t vote elsewhere. “Protocols in place to prevent against double voting,” said Padilla, are designed to make the system more trustworthy.
All ballots need to be signed and county officials will compare signatures on ballots to the ones on file to ensure the identity of the voter; ballots get rejected if signatures are mismatched or missing. Despite stringent security measures, the California Voter Foundation (CVF) reported that 1.7 percent of California vote-by-mail ballots get rejected on average, especially among young and newly registered voters. CVF’s president Kim Alexander noted that while vote by mail protects people during the coronavirus pandemic “it shifts responsibility for getting it right from poll workers to voters. Late return and envelope signatures missing or not sufficiently matching voters’ signatures on file are the leading reasons why some ballots are rejected.”
In an appeal to Padilla’s office, the ACLU and several other voter advocacy groups have suggested modifications to signature verification, arguing that “exact matches are not necessary to confirm a valid signature” and “similar characteristics between a signature being compared and any signature on file are sufficient to determine a signature is valid.”
In these instances, explained Padilla, the county is required to contact voters to give them the opportunity to fix the error so their votes can be counted.
In-person voting will be available to voters who may have accessibility issues, need language assistance, replacement ballots, curbside voting or who want to participate in same day registration. Voting locations will follow public health regulations for PPE, sanitation and social distancing, though voting venues have moved to larger arenas like the Dodgers Stadium, Chase Center and the Oakland Coliseum, which are better equipped for social distancing.
The next few weeks will focus on voter registration, voter access, educating the public about voting options and anticipated changes in the run up to November said Padilla. Eligible voters will be encouraged to register (the deadline is October 19), and all registered voters must verify their status or update their voter registration to be current, though same day registration is only available in person.
On the road to Election Day make a plan on how and when to vote, recommends Padilla, and vote early because every vote counts.
For more information go to Vote By Mail.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents