A bill that would require all future statewide California elections to have by-mail ballots go out to all registered voters was passed in the Senate on Thursday.
Assembly Bill 37, authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), would make AB 860, a bill passed in June 2020 that required all elections until 2022 have mail-in ballots be sent out a month prior to elections, permanent.
Under AB 37, all registered voters would need to receive a ballot in by mail at least 29 days before the election. County elections officials would be required to permit any voter to cast a ballot using a certified remote accessible vote by mail system for any election. All ballots would be accepted if sent in by election day and received by elections officials up to a week after election day. The bill would also require a vote by mail tracking system to be accessible to voters with disabilities.
In addition, all counties will have to provide at least two ballot drop off locations, or at least one drop-off location for every 30,000 registered voters, whichever provides more locations. If a jurisdiction has under 30,000 voters, at least one drop-off location will need to be provided.
Before 2020, most Californian counties required voters to specifically request a by-mail ballot. However, due to COVID-19 concerns and a growing number of COVID-19 cases, California passed AB 860. The overwhelming popularity of by-mail voting, which some counties in the 2020 general election reported to being over 90% of all voting, as well as over 20% of all registered voters voting in the recall election as of September 1st, influenced many lawmakers to create a permanent by-mail system. Encouraged by the higher than normal voter turnout due to the by-mail ballots, Assemblyman Berman began working on AB 37 late last year.
“Our democracy is strongest when everyone participates,” noted Assemblyman Berman in a statement shortly after writing the bill. “[In 2020] we saw historic levels of voter participation following the passage of AB 860, which required every county to send vote-by-mail ballots to all active registered voters. More than 68% of eligible Californians voted in the general election, which was the highest turnout since at least 1960. Now that we know these changes were successful, I will introduce a bill in the new session to make permanent the key provisions of AB 860.”
Previous Assembly votes earlier this year, as well as Assembly and Senate committee votes, have been largely split by party, with a handful of Democratic lawmakers joining Republicans in opposition against the bill at different stages. The Senate on Thursday was no different.
AB 37 opposition, support
Opponents of AB 37 have charged that permanent mail-in ballots will lead to more cases of voter fraud. Senator Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) noted several recent incidents in the recall election that could lead to voter fraud, such as a Torrance felon found with 300 unopened ballots and numerous cases of multiple ballots being sent to voters. The later actually happened to many lawmakers in attendance on Thursday, including Borgeas himself.
“So if I’m getting two ballots, I know others are getting multiple ballots as well, and that feeds into this narrative of distrust,” noted Senator Borgeas.
However, Democrats downplayed possible fraud, noting that California has historically had little to no cases of voter fraud, the Torrance man being an isolated incident, and by-mail ballots still only allowing one vote per person due to bar code tracking.
“There were virtually no reports of fraud in the 2020 election,” said Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) in response to Borgeas on the floor.
Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) also joined in, saying “The only reason that there is distrust by anyone in our voting system is because of the unfounded, false conspiracy theories that are being spread on social media. Expanding the ability to vote, which is what we are doing today, that does not reduce trust.”
Many election experts noted that voters continue to be split on on by-mail balloting.
“People like the convenience of it, but many also like seeing their vote physically go in, like to make sure,” said Cassie Filippelli, a county election coordination volunteer, to the Globe on Thursday. “A lot of people don’t want to go in, but a lot of people want a system here closer to how it is in other parts of the country where you need to physically go in with an ID. Usually when California passes something others follow, but in the case of elections, there has been a lot of backlash against laws inspired by ones originated in the Northeast or West Coast. This one, well, it probably won’t spread too much even if passed.”
AB 37 is expected to go back to the Assembly for final passage due to being amended recently before going to the Governor for approval.
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