By Eric Gelber
On Tuesday, February 16th, the State Assembly passed on a 2/3 majority, party line vote SB 29 (Umberg), requiring county election officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voters, and to allow voters to use a vote by mail (VBM) ballot tracking system, for all elections proclaimed or conducted prior to January 1, 2022.
What problem/issue does the new law address?
According to the author, California conducted a safe, secure, and accurate November 2020 Presidential Election due, in large part, to two bills enacted prior to the election: SB 423 (2020) authored by Senator Umberg and AB 860 by Assemblymember Berman. “The historic turnout for the 2020 election was 80.7% (as of early December) despite the pandemic. AB 860 and this year’s successor, SB 29, will ensure that all eligible voters living in jurisdictions conducting elections in 2021 will be mailed a vote-by-mail ballot in order to give the option for individuals to vote at home if they wish.”
Last year’s bills, AB 860 (Berman) and SB 423 (Umberg) were enacted as accommodations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. AB 860 required county elections officials to mail ballots to all active registered voters for the November 3, 2020 statewide general election and required county elections officials to use a VBM ballot tracking system for that election. SB 423 authorized changes to in-person voting requirements for the November 3, 2020, statewide general election, and required the state and counties to conduct voter education and outreach campaigns to notify voters about voting in that election.
Both AB 860 and SB 423 were applicable only to the November 2020 presidential general election. No other legislation has been enacted to make further accommodations for the conduct of elections in California while the COVID-19 pandemic remains ongoing. This bill would apply provisions of AB 860 to any elections proclaimed or conducted prior to January of next year.
Although the state doesn’t hold regularly scheduled statewide elections in odd-numbered years, SB 29 would apply to local elections and special elections held this year. Two special elections have already been scheduled, to fill the State Senate seat formerly held by Holly Mitchell (now serving on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors) and the seat of former Assemblymember, Dr. Shirley Weber (appointed and confirmed as Secretary of State). There may also be a statewide election scheduled this year related to a potential recall of Governor Newsom.
SB 29 was amended to refer to elections “proclaimed” or conducted prior to January 1, 2022 so that it would apply to any potential runoff election held in 2022 related to an election conducted prior to that date.
Supporters of the bill asserted that no one should have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote. They further noted that SB 29 is an important step in promoting resilience in the state’s elections and ensuring that every California voter will have the opportunity to fill out their ballot in a safe manner. This is also an important measure to ensure the health and safety of poll and election workers.
In opposition, the Election Integrity Project of California, Inc. (EIPCa) contended that Californians already have the unrestricted right at any time to simply pick up the phone and request a VBM for any or all elections. Those who still feel too vulnerable to venture out to vote in person do not need the State to make their voting decisions for them, they asserted. No one’s health will be jeopardized by allowing voters to make their own choices. And doing so will protect legitimate voters from the cancellation of their legal ballots by those who are facilitated to double vote, vote from the grave, vote from another state, etc. EIPCa urged legislators not to double down on the ill-advised AB 860 and its purported catastrophic impact on both election integrity and on voter confidence.
As SB 29 states, however, distribution of VBM ballots to registered voters does not prevent a voter from voting in person at a polling place, vote center, or other authorized location. That provision is intended to clarify that SB 29 does not override requirements in existing law for elections officials to provide in-person voting opportunities.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association opposed the bill unless it was amended to require tracking code technology to maintain accurate and current voter registration records, and to require the Secretary of State to collect and publicly report for each county the number of ballots mailed out, returned as undeliverable, returned completed, counted, and the number of ballots not counted and the reason. The requested amendments were not taken.
As an urgency measure to take effect immediately, SB 29 required and received a 2/3 majority of votes in both Houses. As of this writing, the bill is on the Governor’s desk for signature.
Another bill pending in the Legislature—AB 37 (Berman)—would require elections officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voter and to make a ballot tracking system available for all future elections. That bill is not an urgency measure and, so, would apply to elections held after 2021.
Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.
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