By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Quietly and without fanfare, Governor Newsom signed a package of legislation that included a provision to send all registered voters a vote-by-mail ballot.
AB 37, authored by Assemblymember Marc Berman (Menlo Park), makes permanent the measure to send a vote-by-mail ballot to every active registered voter that was originally an emergency provision under COVID.
The governor’s office called it “a move to increase access to democracy and enfranchise more voters.”
The practice of sending vote-by-mail ballots to every registered voter first began in California in 2020, and was extended through 2021, as a safety measure to counteract pandemic-related disruptions and which resulted in record voter participation.
“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections integrity and transparency,” said Governor Newsom.
He added, “Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic and today we are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election. I extend my thanks to Assembly Elections Committee Chair Assemblymember Marc Berman for his leadership on this issue.”
All-mail balloting has at times been controversial—as it was in the 2020 presidential election when former President Trump discouraged Republicans, who had traditionally relied heavily on mail balloting to vote at the polls.
Locally in Davis there was a bit of controversy when the school district in the March 2012 Special Election went to an all-mail ballot. The school district chose that because the cost borne on the county was substantially lower than an election where all polling places remained open.
Despite a newspaper columnist complaining about the lack of ballot security, no problems were reported.
In 2019 (well before the current controversies), the Vanguard analyzed the data from 2018 and suggested that California ought to go to all-mail elections. That was in part because, increasingly, residents were voting that way anyway.
In November 2018, in what will turn out to be the final general election with in-person voting in California, of the 29,000 votes cast in Davis, only a little over 9000 of them (32.2 percent) voted at the polls.
County-wide in Yolo, around 52,000 people voted by mail that year compared to just 18,000 at the polls.
The AP reported at the time that five counties, including Sacramento and Napa, experimented by sending mail ballots to all registered voters. Their hope was that the number of people voting would increase and, indeed, California set records this year in November for mid-term voter turnout.
In 2010, about 40 percent of the vote in California was vote by mail. By the 2014 primary, it was up to 69.4 percent. And by 2018, it was around 75 percent.
We asked Jesse Salinas about the prospect of going all-mail, which he seemed at that time to think was in the cards at some point. That has now been decided at the state level, even as other states are moving in the other direction.
“The bill will permanently expand access and increase participation in our elections by making voting more convenient and meeting people where they are,” said Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber.
She continued, “Vote-by-mail has significantly increased participation of eligible voters. Voters like having options for returning their ballot whether by mail, at a secure drop box, a voting center or at a traditional polling station. And the more people who participate in elections, the stronger our democracy and the more we have assurance that elections reflect the will of the people of California.”
“When voters get a ballot in the mail, they vote,” said Assemblymember Berman. “We saw this in the 2020 General Election when, in the middle of a global health pandemic, we had the highest voter turnout in California since Harry Truman was president. I want to thank Governor Newsom for signing AB 37, ensuring that every active registered voter in California will receive a ballot in the mail before every future election. As other states actively look for ways to make it harder for people to vote, California is expanding access to an already safe and secure ballot.”
Governor Newsom also signed SB 35 authored by Senator Tom Umberg (Santa Ana) making changes to the distance within which electioneering and specified political activities near a voting site are prohibited.
He signed AB 1367 by Assemblymember Evan Low of Campbell, increasing penalties for the egregious personal use of campaign funds to up to two times the amount of the unlawful expenditure.
Finally he signed SB 686 by Senator Steve Glazer requiring an LLC that is engaged in campaign activity to provide additional information regarding the members and capital contributors to the LLC.
One announcement not made was whether he would sign SB 660 by Assemblymember Josh Newman, which prohibits organizers of recalls, initiatives and referenda from paying signature gatherers on a per-signature or “bounty” basis.
Newman in an article in CalMatters said that he intends to introduce two bills next session that also address the recall process. “The first would raise the threshold for the number of signatures needed to qualify a recall effort, from 12% to 20% of the participating electorate in the last election.”
The second would eliminate the Part B question on the recall ballot and designate the lieutenant governor as successor in case of recall.
“Such a change would strip out the very clear, current incentive for political mischief and restore the recall process to being a means to achieve justice, as the framers intended,” he wrote, noting that for now “SB 660 offers the most immediate rescue. Because bounty-paid signature gatherers optimize their compensation by persuading voters to sign as rapidly as possible, professional signature gatherers routinely employ misleading information and outright lies in order to collect the maximum signatures in the minimum amount of time.”
SB 660 would not require ballot approval, while his other proposals would.