How California reached historic voter turnout despite pandemic, distrust
Californians faced the naysayers and voted in historic numbers this election. CalMatters interviewed 45 of 58 county registrars and found the mail vote experiment saw few glitches, little drama and might provide a blueprint for future elections across the country.
Californians faced the naysayers and voted by mail in record numbers this election, potentially avoiding a pandemic super spreader event and showing the nation it could be done.
CalMatters interviewed voting officials in most of the state’s 58 counties and their verdict is in: The experiment with voting by mail saw few glitches, little drama and, instead, might well provide a blueprint for future elections across the country.
Indeed, state officials are already talking about plans to make voting by mail permanent for the biggest state in the union and its 22 million registered voters.
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Besides the unprecedented challenge of conducting the election in a pandemic, voting officials also had to deal with a deep, partisan divide that helped to fuel widespread misinformation about election security.
Yet by the time polls closed at 8 p.m. Nov. 3, voter registrars say they had little need for law enforcement help and reported insignificant incidents affecting ballot safety. They reported historic numbers of ballots cast, about 17.6 million at last count, and almost 208,000 more still to process as of 5 p.m. Monday.
Upping the ante on mailed ballots
Vote by mail got a jump-start four years ago when the Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act, launching a pilot project of select counties in 2018 and allowing any county, starting in 2020, to send a ballot to every voter. Voters could choose to mail in their ballots, place them in a drop box, or vote in person. County-wide vote centers — one for every 10% of registered voters in larger counties — replaced neighborhood polling places.
At the time, few were talking about how to survive a pandemic. The bill instead was intended to increase voter turnout by making voting more convenient.
“In a strange way we were extra prepared,” said the voting law’s author, Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). “It was fortuitous that we passed this and got it off the ground when COVID struck.”
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In 2018, five counties went with the new model — Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo. This year, ten more counties joined them — Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Orange, Santa Clara, and Tuolumne.
When the pandemic disrupted everyday life, Gov. Gavin Newsom upped the ante. He issued an executive order for every voter in the state to be sent a mail ballot. The Legislature made it law, and gave the other counties the option to consolidate polling places on the theory that fewer polling places would help stop the spread of the virus.
Mail ballots and vote centers in 2020 proved popular with voters, registrars said.
“We heard positive feedback from a lot of voters about being able to vote early, and then also be able to vote at any location,” said Deva Proto, Sonoma County registrar of voters.
It was especially helpful that technology used in the polling centers allowed officials to verify a voter’s eligibility on the spot and reduce the number of provisional ballots, which speeds up vote counting.
Voter registrars say the Voter’s Choice Act model — mailed ballots to every registered voter, backed up by vote centers for same-day registration, language assistance, accessible voting machine use, replacement ballots and in-person voting — is probably the future of voting in California.
“These county-wide vote centers, they were the greatest thing,” said Brandi Orth, registrar of voters in Fresno County and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
It was especially helpful that technology used in the centers allowed officials to verify a voter’s eligibility on the spot and reduce the number of provisional ballots, which speeds up vote counting, she said.
California already had plenty of experience with mail voting, with more than half of voters using it since 2012. In recent years, usage increased: 65% of voters cast ballots through the mail in the 2018 general election and 72% in this year’s primary as more counties adopted the Voter’s Choice Act model. Some rural counties already mailed each registered voter a ballot.
In California, registrars can start processing mail ballots when they arrive, but not tally the votes. In Pennsylvania, by contrast, mail ballots can’t be processed until election day. Most California counties issued substantial vote totals soon after polls closed because many ballots had already been prepared for counting.
‘Making voting easier’
Momentum is building to make statewide vote by mail permanent in California.
Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park and chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting, said Nov. 9 he would introduce legislation next year to require all active registered voters be mailed a ballot for future elections.
The success of early voting — more than half of the mail ballots were returned by election day — prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to say he’d support making it permanent.
“We’ll discuss that with the Legislature, but I think making voting easier, providing more choice and more opportunity is fabulous,” he said on election day.
Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, both Democrats, also said they liked the idea.
If Berman’s proposal gains traction, the Legislature should come up with the money to help counties pay for mail balloting and vote centers, said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation advocacy group.
“The idea has merit but you have to talk about funding,” she said. “I didn’t see that in the announcement.”
Federal CARES Act money, provided to help cover the costs of the pandemic, helped pay the costs of mailing ballots to every voter. “That’s not going to be there next time,” she said.
And the Voter’s Choice Act model needs “refinements,” she said. She pointed to the requirement that some centers be open for 11 days so voters can cast their ballot at their convenience. Registrars surveyed by CalMatters also said the requirement should be scaled back, because they didn’t get enough traffic to justify the cost.
California joins states with high turnout
The final numbers are not in, but voter turnout in California reached 80% as of Monday. Voter turnout last topped 80% in 1972 and 1976, according to California Secretary of State data.
More recent high turnout years show 75% in 2016 and 79% in 2008.
Did mailing each registered voter a ballot increase voter turnout? Probably, said Lisa Bryant, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, who specializes in election administration.
“If we look at the data nationally, states that conduct all-mail (Oregon) or nearly all-mail (Colorado and Washington) elections have among the highest turnout rates in the country,” she said.
For clues in California, she looked at Voter’s Choice Act counties where all voters were mailed ballots in earlier elections.
(Mail-in) voters also report in surveys that they like being able to research information on the ballot while completing their ballot, which is hard to do in the voting booth.
— Lisa Bryant, Political Science professor at Fresno State
In the 2018 primary and general elections, Voter’s Choice Act counties saw a larger increase in turnout than other counties, she said.
“I haven’t dug into the 2020 numbers yet since they haven’t been finalized, but I expect we will see a high number of mail ballots was a contributing factor to higher turnout in the general as well,” she said.
Turnout increases because it is easier for people to vote, she said.
“They don’t have to set aside time, try to estimate how long lines will be, or worry about transportation when they vote by mail,” she said. “Voters also report in surveys that they like being able to research information on the ballot while completing their ballot, which is hard to do in the voting booth.”
Voter registrars agree that vote by mail seems to increase turnout.
“If the Legislature is interested in continuing with this increased voter turnout, they need to continue with vote by mail,” said Joe Holland, Santa Barbara County registrar of voters.
Technology for peace of mind
Opting for peace of mind, millions of Californians signed up to receive text messages, email, or phone calls informing them their ballot had been received and would be counted. The BallotTrax system, called WheresMyBallot, also informed voters if they should contact their county election office to resolve ballot problems such as a missing signature on the envelope. More than 20,000 messages were sent to voters alerting them they needed to cure their ballots.
BallotTrax is a 21st century option that the Secretary of State’s office likes.
“Delivering the same type of ‘customer service’ experience that Californians are used to when ordering retail items online is a major step in modernizing our elections,” said Sam Mahood, press secretary for the Secretary of State’s office, in a written statement.
Some counties reported problems with the system. As mail ballots were returned in droves, it would take short-staffed small counties a few days to verify signatures. But if the voter checked WheresMyBallot, it appeared their ballot had not been received so voters would call the office, said Julie Bustamante, Lassen County clerk-recorder.
“We’re on the phone all the time,” she said. “I think we should have the option that the county doesn’t have to participate.”
BallotTrax costs $41,667 a month for statewide service and is paid by the state, the Secretary of State’s Office said. There’s no cost to counties.
Advocate says too many ballots rejected
The rejection rate of mail-in ballots for the election won’t be known until results are final, but California Voter Foundation research shows a 1.7% rejection rate over a 10-year period.
That’s too high, said Alexander of the voter foundation.
“Young voters were three times more likely to get their ballot rejected,” Alexander said. “I do worry that the system that uses signatures and mail will be foreign to young voters.”
Another problem is that too many ballots are disqualified because they were postmarked after election day, the study found.
That’s true this year too, it appears. In Sacramento County, 783 ballot envelopes arrived two days after the election and 455 were postmarked Nov. 4, one day too late to be counted, the foundation said.
I do worry that the system that uses signatures and mail will be foreign to young voters.
— Kim Alexander, President of the California Voter Foundation
In Sacramento County’s past three elections, most ballots rejected for lateness were due to being postmarked too late, not for arriving too late to count, the foundation said. In the state’s March primary, about 70,000 of 102,000 rejected mail ballots were rejected for lateness.
To attack the problem, voters should be allowed to bring their mail ballot to a vote center and put them into the scanner, Alexander said. Shasta County allowed that option in the election and “it worked incredibly well,” she said.
“The voter can watch the counter turn over and know it was accepted,” she said.
Voters who fail to sign the ballot envelope or whose signature did not match are mailed a notice to come in and “cure” the problem so their ballot gets counted.
Few ballots are still arriving by mail, according to elections officials. The last day to receive a mail ballot was Friday.
Battling rumors with facts
Many voter registrars said they spent inordinate amounts of time combating misinformation and rumors spread on social media.
“Every day for several hours,” said Orth, the Fresno County registrar. “Every time you turned around there was wrong information getting out there.
“The whole Sharpie thing was ridiculous,” she said, referring to a sudden controversy that ballots marked with Sharpie pens would not be counted. But other rumors included dire warnings not to vote at early vote centers because the vote would not be counted, that mail ballots would not be counted, and that vote fraud was occurring, she said.
Social media misinformation was the most problematic to deal with, registrars said.
“I just tell people don’t look at Twitter, don’t look at Facebook, look at the election material we send out, educate yourself and vote,” said Candace Grubbs, Butte County registrar of voters.
Napa County registrar John Tuteur said he once spent two hours online responding to social media misinformation.
San Luis Obispo County elections hired two people specifically to take phone calls, many of them about misinformation. The county also had a large presence on Facebook to get out the correct information.
Other registrars had similar experiences.
“We spent more time just posting informative videos and infographics on our own social media to try to be the official source of information,” said Rebecca Spencer, Riverside County registrar of voters.
Throughout the state, people brought their ballots into the main office to be sure they were received after news stories about potential postal service delays.
Mail ballots in California worked as planned, but voter skepticism was widespread.
“How do I know my vote counted?” was a common question, said Michelle Baldwin, registrar of voters of Tulare County. “A lot of them didn’t feel comfortable putting them in the ballot drop box or the mail.”
How to vote in a pandemic
As if misinformation wasn’t a big enough hurdle, elections officials also needed plans to protect people from the coronavirus. Poll workers wore masks in all counties surveyed by CalMatters.
With few exceptions, in-person voters were conscientious about wearing masks and following safety rules, registrars said.
“It was less of an issue than I thought it would be,” Orth said.
In San Bernardino County, poll workers had their temperature checked daily and wore face shields and masks. Poll workers in San Joaquin County also wore face shields and masks.
To reduce the chances of spreading the virus, counties found large spaces for in-person voting and offered drive-through voting. Santa Barbara County, for instance, used a high school gym. Santa Clara County had poll workers bring ballots out to voters waiting in their car.
With few exceptions, in-person voters were conscientious about wearing masks and following safety rules, registrars said.
Napa, Tulare, Imperial and Santa Cruz counties checked temperatures before allowing people to vote in person.
Few election officials reported staff infected with the coronavirus. But San Joaquin County said a poll worker tested positive for COVID–19 at a voter service center in Escalon, forcing 16 staff members to quarantine. And in Tulare County, a poll worker reportedly tested positive using a rapid test. But poll workers wore masks and practiced physical distancing so exposure to the public was minimal, the health department said.
In Kings County, a staff member was exposed to the coronavirus two days after the election, causing the registrar of voters to shut the office for two weeks while staff stayed home.
“This is the most difficult, complex election I’ve done in 25 years,” said Scott Konopasek, Contra Costa County assistant registrar of voters. Nevertheless, he said, “This is the one that’s rolled out smoother and better than any previous election.”
Running a smooth election in the midst of a pandemic and political and cultural cross currents is an achievement, he said.
“We felt that this was really, really important for us to be doing,” he said. “We were actually serving our country in a very important way that no one else can do.”
Votebeat reporter Michael Lozano and University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reporters Katie Licari-Kozak, Aaron Leathley and Freddy Brewster contributed to this story.
This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. In California, CalMatters is hosting the collaboration with the Fresno Bee, the Long Beach Post and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.