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COVID-19 Will Make California Elections Challenging but Doable

Eric McGhee April 8, 2020
Photo of Vote by Mail Ballot and Envelope

California’s November 3 general election could come in the midst of a new viral surge. This poses tremendous risks to voters and poll workers at in-person voting sites. Even if we wanted to have the same number of polling places, it might be difficult to find volunteers willing to staff them.

The good news is that the transition to a safer approach, while challenging, is more manageable in California than in most states.

One option is off the table: postponing the fall election. Many states have postponed their primaries, but postponing a general election would require congressional approval and would run up against deadlines hardwired into the U.S. Constitution.

Instead, we must get as many voters to cast ballots by mail as possible. In most states, such a switch would be complicated, but California has long been friendly to vote by mail (VBM). California’s VBM rate is very high and growing. Almost two-thirds of ballots in the 2018 general election were either mailed in or dropped off at a polling place.

Fourteen counties have rapidly increased their VBM capacity already by sending every registered voter a VBM ballot by default. They have also replaced polling places with a smaller number of “vote centers” that are open to any voter in the county and for early voting before Election Day. Almost a quarter of registered voters are now covered by this system, up from 7% in the fall of 2018.

Five of these 14 counties switched to this new model in 2018 and saw the share of ballots cast by mail increase an average of 20% from the 2016 general election. Preliminary evidence also suggests the reform slightly increased turnout without negatively impacting underrepresented groups like Latinos, Asian Americans, and young people.

COVID-19 will move elections across the state closer to this model. Governor Newsom has mandated something like this for the special elections coming in April and May. Though this is a realistic path forward, it is not without obstacles. Preparation time is short. And the risk of infection will alter the siting and staffing of in-person options, even in experienced counties.

Furthermore, initial positive experiences in vote center counties may not translate to the rest of the state. A chaotic transition could create unforeseen problems that prompt some to throw up their hands and not vote at all. Young people and voters of color are more likely to use in-person voting, so great care must be taken to ensure they receive news of the change, trust that the change is being done fairly, and have options besides VBM if they want them.

Fortunately, California is well positioned here, too. Organizations like the Future of California Elections have helped make the state a national model for robust communication between election administrators and stakeholders.

The task is daunting, but we have little choice. Our best hope for a safe and fair election is to expand vote from home options as much as possible. The question is not whether to do it, but to recognize the challenges and work to mitigate them as much as possible.

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