California’s Elections Boss: State’s Voting Changes Are Model for the Country
Monday, June 22, 2020
For states across the country struggling with charges of voter suppression and partisan wrangling over who gets to vote and how, Secretary of State Alex Padilla has a suggestion: Be more like California.
“I hope we all learned in high school government classes that democracy works best when as many people as possible participate,” Padilla said in an interview. “California tries to lead by example.”
Over decades, the state has worked to make voting an easier, more user-friendly experience.
- Since the state first allowed no-excuse absentee voting in the late 1970s, the percentage of voters casting ballots by mail has jumped from 5% in the June 1980 presidential primary to 72% in March.
- In most of California, people can vote in person weeks before the election at county offices and some polling places.
- California now allows mail votes to be tallied if they are postmarked by election day and arrive by the following Friday. For the November election, officials will accept ballots that land 17 days after the election.
Then there’s voter registration, which has changed dramatically in recent years.
“We’ve gone from paper to online to automatic to same-day registration,” Padilla said. “It’s not just enough to run elections well. ... We have to ask if we’re doing everything we can to facilitate participation.”
In California, the changes have worked. A record 82% of California’s eligible voters were registered for the March election, up from 69% in 2004.
As a state with more registered voters than the total population of every other state but Texas and Florida, “we’ve taken all the excuses off the table,” Padilla said. “If we can do it here and make elections inclusive and secure, it can be done anywhere.”
Sixteen states, for example, will issue absentee ballots only to voters with a valid reason for not voting in person, such as illness or travel outside their county. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, since 2010, 25 states have enacted new voting restrictions, including strict voter identification requirements, limits on early voting and rules that make it harder for people to register to vote — and stay registered.
None of those tougher restrictions exists in California.
The rules can be arbitrary, said Ben Hovland, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that serves as a national resource for information about election administration.
“In Missouri, where I worked, if you’re at the wrong polling place, your ballot doesn’t count,” he said. “If you’re at the high school and not the middle school across the street, your ballot for president won’t be counted.”
While Padilla and other Democrats are quick to call these rules voter suppression, officials in those states argue that strict regulations are needed to prevent election fraud and ensure that only eligible people cast ballots.
“Today, I was proud to share our efforts to promote the trusted confidence in the process,” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said after a congressional hearing on election and the coronavirus earlier this month, “and to prevent the hijacking of the 2020 election cycle from the fraudulent practices of vote-by-mail and ballot harvesting.”
That process, legal in California, allows political parties to collect signed and sealed mail ballots and turn them in to election officials.
At that same hearing, Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said election changes proposed by House Democrats, including expanded mail voting and allowing mail ballots postmarked by election day to be counted, “risk the integrity of our election process and are, frankly, irresponsible.”
Studies have found almost no evidence that mail ballots lead to increased voting fraud.
California’s efforts to boost turnout and attract more eligible voters to the polls have been a target for Republicans, who say Padilla, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democrats across the country are more concerned about bringing in votes from their supporters than they are about election security.
“Democrats are making a mockery of our elections,” said Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Republicans will not stand by as Democrats try to destroy confidence in our elections.”
Padilla has called out GOP lawsuits designed to limit mail voting as unconscionable efforts to slash turnout in November and keep young and nonwhite voters from the polls.
“How we administer elections shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he said. “But it’s clear that one party wants to make it harder for people to cast ballots.”
There’s nothing nonpartisan about Padilla. He was elected secretary of state as a Democrat, served two terms in the state Senate and is chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
California’s election policies, though, are designed to aid all voters and “have proven to be successful and proven to be secure,” he said.
Other states — and their voters — will recognize that, Padilla said.
“Concern about elections is higher than ever,” Padilla said. “That will translate to election modernization.”
Category: Advocacy News, Government Affairs