PD Editorial: Voting by mail was a huge success
American election systems endured a double stress test this year, one natural and one political. California and its 58 counties performed admirably on both. Now the state should lock in place voting processes that have proven secure, transparent and voter-friendly.
One source of stress was the coronavirus pandemic, which made in-person voting a health risk for voters and elections workers alike. The other stressor was President Donald Trump’s corrosive campaign against alternatives to in-person voting.
Yet on Nov. 3, record numbers of Californians participated in a smoothly conducted election. In Sonoma County, an all-time high of 272,224 voters cast ballots. Turnout among those eligible to vote was 80%. Among registered voters, it was 90.6%, close to the 2008 peak of 93.4%.
Glitches, foul-ups and anomalies were few, Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Deva Marie Proto told The Press Democrat, and those few hiccups were speedily resolved. Credit goes to Proto, her staff and the small army of elections workers who ensured that the machinery of self-government worked smoothly.
Credit also goes to the Voter’s Choice Act of 2016, approved in response to California’s long-term shift toward mail-in voting. It gives counties the option of sending a ballot to every registered voter. Five counties participated in a universal mailed ballot pilot project in 2018. Ten more had planned to join them in 2020. Then the pandemic swept in, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order, later affirmed by state legislation, requiring that every California voter receive a mail-in ballot.
That surely contributed to the statewide turnout of 70.8% of eligible voters — the highest figure since 1952 and, the Los Angeles Times reported, the third-highest since 1910.
Unlike such long-time vote-by-mail states as Oregon, California still allows in-person voting at voting centers. Sonoma County had 30 of them for the Nov. 3 election. That was far fewer than in previous years, when there would be 150 to 175 polling places needed to serve all the county’s voting precincts.
Even at a time of widespread vote-by-mail, those voting centers still play an important role. They provide same-day voter registration, language assistance, instant voter eligibility confirmation and other services. And they offer an alternative for any voters who, for whatever reason, don’t like voting by mail.
No matter how they vote, Californians can track their ballots’ progress to ensure that they have been received and counted. The tracking system — WheresMyBallot — also informs voters of errors such as missing signatures, allowing them to fix problems and ensure their votes are counted.
Voting by mail has always enjoyed the advantage of convenience. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new dimension. At a time when the state is discouraging or prohibiting even small gatherings, a polling place election creates a conflict between civic duty and public health. Voting by mail is a sensible response to the need for social distancing.
The next election date is in March, with west county voters scheduled to decide on a school parcel tax and a lodging tax increase. Precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will still be needed then.
And even after the pandemic passes into history, the Voters Choice Act will still be of benefit to Californians. The governor expanded it as an emergency measure, and the Legislature passed a law to ratify that decision. But the expansion isn’t permanent.
It should be. If there’s a positive legacy of the pandemic, let it be that all voters can cast their ballots using whatever method suits them best.
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