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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to raise concerns about in-person voting and virus transmission as the November election approaches. Many states are encouraging vote-by-mail as a solution to protect poll workers and voters alike, and California has taken extraordinary measures in this direction. For the presidential election, the state will send every registered voter a mail-in ballot, as counties limit in-person options but offer more early voting and ballot drop boxes.

Eric McGhee, senior fellow at PPIC, presented findings from a report that examines California’s experience with the Voter’s Choice Act (VCA), a recent reform that shifted counties to alternative voting methods. Used in 15 counties—the first wave in 2018 and then 10 more in 2020—the reform covers a slight majority of registered voters in the state. Under the VCA, all voters receive a mail-in ballot, counties offer vote centers rather than local polling places, and early voting and drop boxes are available.

McGhee reasoned that the VCA offers an approximation of the pandemic voting model that voters will face in November, and his findings can offer context around what to expect. Gaining insight into who turns out, what methods they prefer, and when voters cast their ballots can help inform policy and outreach efforts.

Who votes under this model? “The basic answer is more people do,” McGhee said. “We see a bigger increase in turnout for in-person voters than by-mail voters, but we see some increase for both.” This pattern held across demographics. There was also no partisan impact—differences in turnout among Republicans and Democrats were small. However, a few groups did have trouble with the reform: voter turnout among foreign-language voters, young people, and renters sometimes declined.

Data from Orange and Sacramento Counties further revealed when and how residents were likely to vote. Voters who mailed ballots sent them steadily over the weeks leading into Election Day. Ballots dropped in a drop box were cast closer to Election Day, with about 60% cast on Election Day. Similarly, voters who dropped off ballots or voted in-person at a vote center did so near or on Election Day.

Report co-author Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California, joined the discussion and stressed the value of using the data to plan targeted messaging and outreach to groups who had lower turnout. Findings from Romero’s separate report, Voter Messaging in the Time of COVID-19, break out similar voter data by race, disability, and regional differences.

Romero recommended Californians mail ballots at least a week before the election to account for potential delays with the US Postal Service and encouraged voters to register to track their ballots.

Is it worth it to switch to a new model that may have a greater risk of fraud? “There’s not a greater risk of fraud,” Romero said and outlined state protections in place.

“By contrast,” McGhee concluded, “COVID is real. The risk is still there.”

Supported with funding from the Craig Newmark Philanthropies

As part of our Speaker Series on California’s Future, PPIC invites elected leaders from across the political spectrum to participate in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.

PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

In a time of unparalleled challenges for California and the nation, PPIC president Mark Baldassare spoke with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy last week about wildfires, the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recovery, police reform, the upcoming election, and more.

As the state confronts a particularly destructive fire season, McCarthy cited the current wildfires as an example of federal-state partnership on important issues. “Governor Newsom and I both worked together to get the president to sign major disaster relief. We did that in record time.” McCarthy added that COVID-19 is another area where the state and federal governments are working together; for example, officials set up a federal testing facility in the Central Valley amid the recent spike in coronavirus cases.

McCarthy emphasized that in the long term vaccines and treatments will be key to defeating the pandemic. To this end, he mentioned Operation Warp Speed, a federal project that aims to accelerate the development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics for COVID-19. He predicted that by next January “we’re going to have a vaccine that’s working, at least one, maybe three . . . [and] a number of therapeutics.”

When asked about economic recovery, he talked about the need to reopen safely. He acknowledged, “As we open up, we’re going to have to accept that there are going to be some people who contract COVID. But are we able to trace? Are we able to test? We can do that [much better] now.” In addition, he said guidelines for reopening should take into account local factors. “You can’t simply say everything is going to be outside because [in Bakersfield] we have 110-degree temperatures.”

A recent PPIC survey shows 64% of Californians believe the criminal justice system in the US is biased against African Americans, and 68% support Black Lives Matter. On issues of police reform and racial injustice, McCarthy said, “I believe everybody in this nation knows we need an improvement.” He noted that police officers also want to see change, and he identified no-knock warrants as one area where there could be potential agreement.

Looking forward to the November election, McCarthy predicted that voter turnout would “be high on both sides.” In particular, he forecast that the presidential race will be closer than current polls suggest.

Despite the many challenges facing the state and nation, McCarthy ended on an optimistic note, stressing that the country has overcome obstacles in the past. “For all the negatives that happen, I will promise you because of who we are as a nation, we will be better . . . tomorrow will be better than today.”

The top issue facing the people of California today is the coronavirus outbreak, according to California’s likely voters. How state and federal leaders respond to this unprecedented crisis will be on voters’ minds when they cast ballots in the November election. In the May PPIC Statewide Survey, we find that widespread voter disapproval of Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic is creating headwinds not only for the incumbent president but also for Republican candidates in House elections.

Californians often rally around their leaders during a crisis. But voters’ current reviews of state and federal officials is a study in contrasts. Governor Gavin Newsom’s approval rating for handling the coronavirus outbreak is at a stunning 69% among likely voters in our May survey, while his overall approval increased by 12 points since earlier this year (52% February PPIC survey, 64% May PPIC survey).

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s disapproval rating for handling the coronavirus outbreak is at a surprisingly high 65% among likely voters, while his overall disapproval rating is statistically unchanged (63% February PPIC survey, 65% May PPIC survey).

Figure - Majority of Likely Voters Disapprove of President Trump’s Handing of the Coronavirus Outbreak

There is remarkable consensus when it comes to Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Majorities across the state’s major regional, racial/ethnic, age, education, and income groups say they disapprove. Partisans are deeply divided (81% Republicans approve, 89% Democrats disapprove), while 54% of independents disapprove.

If the presidential election were held today, 57% of likely voters would vote for Joe Biden and 33% would vote for Donald Trump. Trump’s electoral support (33%) is very similar to his approval rating for handling the coronavirus outbreak (34%). Eighty-four percent of those who disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak say they will vote for Biden.

Trump’s current 24-point deficit contrasts to his 10-point deficit at this time four years ago (49% Clinton, 39% Trump May 2016 PPIC Survey). Today, Biden leads Trump among both men and women, and across racial/ethnic, age, education, and income groups. Biden also leads by wide margins in coastal regions, but the race is close in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

Control of Congress is also at stake in November. If elections for the US House of Representatives were held today, 59% of likely voters would vote for the Democratic candidate while 34% would vote for the Republican candidate. Support for Republican candidates is the same as Trump’s approval rating for the coronavirus outbreak (34%). Eight-five percent of those who disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak say they will vote for the Democratic candidate for the House.

Figure - Majority of Likely Voters Favor Democratic Candidates

Today’s 25-point margin for Democratic candidates contrasts with a 14-point lead at this time two years ago (52% to 38% May 2018 Survey). Today, Democratic candidates enjoy a wide 33-point margin over Republican candidates in Democratically-held districts (62% to 29%); Republican candidates have a narrower 17-point margin over the Democratic candidates in Republican-held districts (57% to 40%). In California’s seven competitive house districts, as determined by the Cook Political Report’s House Race Ratings, 52% of likely voters would vote for the Democrat and 44% would vote for the Republican.

In the days since the May PPIC Survey was completed, the tragic death of George Floyd in police custody has resulted in widespread protests throughout the nation, including California. How our elected leaders handle calls for racial justice is likely to have implications for the fall election. Given the size, diversity, and energy of this movement, California voter turnout could be unusually high. At PPIC, we will be monitoring these developments alongside the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, tracking voters’ views of their federal and state leaders during these highly unsettled times.

With the decennial census and a presidential election on his to-do list, Alex Padilla expected to have a busy year. “We were getting ready for a big 2020,” he said. But 2020 has been even more challenging than he anticipated. In March, both of these major efforts were complicated by the COVID-19 crisis, and the recent surge of protests and demonstrations across the country has had a personal and professional impact.

Padilla discussed these and other issues with PPIC president Mark Baldassare last Friday. When Baldassare asked how state and local leaders can respond to civil unrest over the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and others, Padilla offered an expansive view.

“We can have a very narrow, specific conversation about use-of-force reforms and culture change necessary in police departments around the country. Or we can have broad conversations about systemic discrimination,” he said. “As uncomfortable as it might be, I think one of the silver linings of the killing of George Floyd—because that’s what it was, in my opinion—is that it has brought all this to the surface in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

Padilla sees these conversations as an important step toward change. “I’m truly hoping that all levels of government—not just the federal, but state and local government across the country—will take this opportunity to make some bold steps and changes that are long overdue.”

For Padilla, another key step is to expand California’s voting population. “It’s not about demonstrating or protesting today versus political activity, including voter registration and voting in November. We have to do both.” Increasing voter turnout, he added, is not just about the numbers but about diversifying the electorate: “Lower-income communities, communities of color, young people, especially—those are the voices that we need to try to uplift.”

Now that the governor has expanded vote-by-mail to all California voters for the November election, Padilla’s office is working with counties to help them facilitate both vote by mail and safe in-person voting. “It’s not partisan. It’s about voting rights. It’s about public health,” he said.

In addition to administering “the most consequential election of our lifetime,” Padilla remains focused on an accurate census count. Given the impact of COVID-19 on outreach and follow-up, there has been talk of extending the census timeline. Padilla would prefer to complete the census on schedule. “A significant enough delay in the Census will cause delays in redistricting, and could impact our opportunity to vote in fair districts in 2022,” he said. California’s response rate so far is above the national average, but Padilla noted that “it’s still a far cry from where we were at this stage ten years ago. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Even during this challenging time, Padilla is optimistic about California’s future. “We can and we will make progress. And one of the ways is to make sure our voices are heard in November.”

If coronavirus is still active during this November’s presidential election, the risk remains of spreading the virus among voters and poll workers. The best solution is to limit in-person options and rapidly expand the number of voters who submit ballots through the mail.

This is the right choice for public health. But a debate around the degree of change needed is reasonable: how many mail-in ballots and how many polling places are needed to both keep people safe and allow fair access? And lurking in the background are darker questions: does one party stand to benefit as vote by mail expands? Is this a partisan game masquerading as a question of public health?

The short answer to both questions is no. On the surface, there might seem to be a partisan angle. Many Democrats have pushed for expanding vote by mail, while President Trump has firmly stated it would hurt Republican candidates. States friendly to voting by mail tend to vote more Democratic, while some Republican-leaning states like Texas have resisted more voting by mail even in the pandemic. And Californians who vote by mail are older and more likely to be white, demographics that also vote more Republican on average.

But these scenarios describe the status quo; they don’t tell us how election results might change if vote by mail became more widely available. When election jurisdictions—including some California counties—have rapidly expanded vote by mail, neither major party has clearly benefited. Likewise, early evidence from experiments with heavy vote by mail in California suggests an increase in turnout among Latinos, Asian Americans, and young people of up to seven percent, though often with a fair amount of statistical uncertainty.

The same analysis suggests overall turnout increased about two to three percent, making it difficult to say that the composition of the electorate changed much in the end. Thus, while the greater convenience of vote by mail does seem to draw in a few more voters, these voters aren’t that different on average from the ones who show up already.

The demographic differences between in-person and by-mail voters are real, but should not be overstated. People from all backgrounds and political persuasions vote in person. All of them will be at risk in an election where coronavirus is still active. Expanding vote by mail is now a pure question of public health and administrative capacity. Neither party should worry that it will put them at a disadvantage.

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.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the PPIC Corporate Circle and the PPIC Donor Circle.

This post is excerpted from my speech at the Sacramento Seminar on October 4, 2019 in San Francisco.

Pollsters often say that a public opinion survey is a snapshot in time. The latest PPIC Statewide Survey was conducted in the days after the California Legislature finished its work in 2019 and while startling news was breaking that the president called a foreign leader for a political favor—which has resulted in the launch of an impeachment inquiry. The mood of California voters in this timely survey—especially their level of unhappiness and anxiety—is noteworthy because of its far-reaching implications for the March primary and the November election.

Let’s start with President Trump’s approval rating, which now stands at 35% among California likely voters. This is unchanged from the last reading in our July survey and has been remarkably stable over time. Today, 83% of Republicans approve of his job performance, compared to just 38% of independents and only 7% of Democrats. Given its partisan makeup, California is a reliably blue state on the Electoral College map. Still, low approval ratings for the president will increase turnout, influence the Democratic presidential primary choice, and affect all of the legislative races next year.

Meanwhile, approval ratings for Congress remain low even in the wake of Democratic control of the US House of Representatives. Today, just 24% of California likely voters approve of the way that Congress is doing its job. This is unchanged from the start of the year—as well as from a year ago when Republicans controlled the House. In California, likely voters across party lines give low approval ratings to Congress. If this trend continues, incumbents will have to work harder to keep their seats in 2020.

Closer to home, Governor Newsom and the legislature are getting mixed reviews in their first year of making policy together. Among likely voters, 43% approve and 44% disapprove of the governor, while 38% approve and 51% disapprove of the legislature. Since the beginning of the year, disapproval has increased significantly for the governor (+15 points) and the legislature (+8 points). Today, more than six in ten Democrats approve of the job that the governor and legislature are doing, compared to fewer than four in ten independents, and less than two in ten Republicans. If their ratings remain in the doldrums, the governor and legislators will have little sway over Californians’ ballot choices next year.

figure - Approval Ratings of State Elected Officials

Equally important, California’s likely voters are in a negative frame of mind about the state of their state—even in the midst of low unemployment and budget surpluses. Fifty-four percent say that things in California are going in the wrong direction (41% say right direction). When asked about economic conditions in California for the next 12 months, a similar 54% expect bad times (37% say good times). Pluralities across party lines are now expecting bad economic times in the next 12 months—a timeframe that includes most of the 2020 election campaign season.

figure - Likely Voters Expect Bad Economic Times in the Next 12 Months

State bonds and tax measures will face headwinds if this level of economic unease continues. This is already evident in the modest support for the $15 billion school bond (54%) and the split-roll property tax initiative (47%) in our recent survey.

figure - Modest Support for Likely 2020 State Ballot Measures

Digging deeper into the survey, more than six in 10 likely voters worry about being able to afford the cost of their health care, six in ten are concerned about the threat of a mass shooting where they live, half are worried about experiencing natural disasters such as wildfires, and four in ten worry about someone they know being deported. Candidates’ promises and plans to address these fears will likely impact the standing of current frontrunners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—and their challengers—in a Democratic presidential primary which is very much up for grabs, as our recent survey shows.

How will voters’ views change over the next 12 months? Clearly, the political wildcard is the impeachment inquiry and how it will impact perceptions of the president, Congress, and the major parties. Uncertainty about the economy is another unknown factor. In the short run, the impeachment inquiry is likely to increase polarization, lead to more political gridlock in Washington, and heighten expectations for the governor and legislature to do more to solve the problems facing California.

PPIC Statewide Surveys will continue to monitor the broader political and economic attitudes, as well as voters’ preferences for presidential candidates and ballot measures, throughout what will be a consequential 2020 election.

Now that California’s presidential primary has been moved from June to March, how might the state’s electorate influence the 2020 election, and how are the major parties engaging with voters? At a lunchtime event in Sacramento last week, PPIC president Mark Baldassare provided an overview of voter participation in California and KQED’s Marisa Lagos moderated a lively, wide-ranging discussion of the upcoming election season.

Lagos, who covers California politics and government for KQED, noted that California has long been a “piggy bank” for presidential candidates in both parties. She asked whether the earlier primary date will increase the state’s influence. “Guess what? You’re still the piggy bank!” joked Tamara Keith, White House correspondent for National Public Radio.

More seriously, Keith noted that it isn’t clear whether “California will come into the process soon enough to make a difference or whether things will have started settling out after Iowa and New Hampshire.” She added that because it takes weeks for the state to count its absentee ballots, “there’s a chance that the race will have already advanced a lot by the time California’s results are fully in.”

Rusty Hicks, chair of the California Democratic Party, said that the earlier primary date offers opportunities for presidential candidates to engage voters across the state. “You have top-tier candidates going to the northern rural parts of the state. They’re going to the Central Valley, they’re going to the Inland Empire.” In his view, this is “a real opportunity to showcase the state . . . it’s more than the Bay Area and Los Angeles.”

From the Republican perspective, the early presidential primary doesn’t make a big difference. But Jessica Patterson, chair of the California Republican Party, sees opportunities on the state level. “We have the opportunity to change the entire makeup of the building across the street.” The party is focused on “making sure we’re engaged in communities . . . to talk about the things that are important to them, and really focus on fixing our state.”

While their perspectives differed in many ways, both Patterson and Hicks stressed the importance of working together to empower and represent all Californians. “I think we all have an interest in ensuring that we have an engaged and empowered electorate,” said Hicks. Patterson agreed, adding that “it’s better for all of us when we find ways that we can work together.”


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