What California is learning from expanding voter rights

By Joe W. Bowers Jr., California Black Media

June 7, 2022 is primary election day in California.

On the ballot are the candidates for U.S. Senate, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Comptroller, Treasurer, Attorney General, Commissioner of Insurance, State Board of Equalization, to the state superintendent of public instruction, the United States House of Representatives, the state senate, and the state assembly, as well as candidates for local elected office.

There are two contests for the US Senate on the ballot. One is for a full six-year term ending Jan. 3, 2029. The other is for the remainder of the term Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) served in place of Vice. President Kamala Harris which ends on January 3, 2023.

Postal voting has been underway since the second week of May. Assembly Bill 37, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021, requires the state to mail absentee ballots (VBMs) to every registered voter in the state. The law applies to all elections held after January 1, 2022.

Ballots are sent out 29 days before the election, which is May 9 for the primary. For the November general election, voters will begin receiving ballots on October 10.

The majority of California voters live in counties that have adopted the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) system. In 2016, Senate Bill 450 created the VCA, an electoral model that expands voters’ options of how, when and where they can vote with the goal of providing more accessible voting options.

VBM bulletins are supplied with a postage-paid return envelope. For a ballot to count in the next primary election, it must be postmarked by Election Day and received by June 14, 2022. It can also be dropped off in person at a secure ballot box, polling place or county elections. office before 8:00 p.m. on June 7, 2022.

The VCA is an optional law. The counties choose if they want to adopt it. In 2018, five counties passed the new law: Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento, and San Mateo. In 2020, nine additional counties changed their electoral models for the VCA: Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Orange, Santa Clara and Tuolumne. In 2022, the number of counties that transitioned to VCA grew to 28 with the addition of Alameda, Kings, Marin, Merced, Riverside, San Benito, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Ventura, and Yolo counties .

In VCA counties, in-person early voting begins as early as May 28. Voters can vote at any polling center in the county instead of being assigned to a neighborhood polling station. Voting centers are open four to ten days before the election, including weekends. They serve as one-stop-shops with accessible voting machines – places where voters can drop off their VBM ballot, receive a replacement ballot, register to vote and get help with voting materials in multiple languages .

Unregistered voters who miss the May 23 registration close will be able to conditionally register to vote at any polling center and vote provisionally until the end of Election Day.

When California policymakers and election officials proposed the Voters’ Choice Act, most proponents applauded its benefits, including reducing election administration costs, providing greater convenience and flexibility for voters and the possibility of improving voter turnout.

Recently, California Secretary of State (SOS) Shirley Weber released a report on the implementation of VCA in the 2020 primary and general elections.

Key findings of the report include:

VCA counties had higher voter registration rates in the state. The 15 counties in the VCA accounted for about half of the state’s registered voters in both elections.

Many VCA counties experienced higher voter turnout than their non-VCA counterparts. Turnout in the 2020 general election across all racial groups showed that white voters had a higher overall turnout than their non-white counterparts. The voter turnout gap for black voters was 5.2 points and AAPI voters had a turnout gap of 4.3 points.

Black and AAPI voters turned out at rates similar to the VCA county average, and Latino voters used in-person voting the most of all races and ethnicities.

Using mail-in ballots was the primary voting choice in the 2020 election. More voters chose to return their ballot by drop box than by mail. The use of drop boxes declined after age 45 in the primary election and 35 in the general election.

Voters in VCA counties voted in person at a higher rate than voters in non-VCA counties in the general election (55.1%). For the primary election, this number was 46.6%.

In the general election, voters between the ages of 46 and 55 voted in person the most of all other age groups. In primary and general elections, voters aged 66 and over voted the least in person.

VBM ballot rejection rates in VCA counties were similar to VBM ballot rejection rates statewide. Voters between the ages of 18 and 25 had the highest rejection rate. Ballot rejection rates declined as voter age increased in VCA counties.

VBM ballots were rejected (69.3%) mainly because they were not received in time during the primary election. But the VBM general election ballot papers were mostly rejected due to mismatched signatures (56.09%).

The use of provisional ballots declined significantly between primary and general elections.

There were no confirmed cases of voter fraud in the primary and general elections in 2020.

Secretary of State’s recommendations based on report findings:

Share best practices from counties that have high enrollment rates with counties that have lower enrollment rates.

Reduce ballot rejection rates through better voter education.

Continue to work with counties to ensure drop box locations are accessible and convenient for the public.

Increase awareness and education about in-person early voting and other voting options available in VCA counties.

Increase targeted outreach efforts to engage young voters (18-25).

“We’ve taken away every excuse a person may have for not voting,” SOS Weber said recently. “People realize it will be easy and comfortable.”

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