California is now permanently a vote-by-mail state as Gavin Newsom signs bill

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California will now mail ballots to voters in all elections, extending a practice temporarily adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus at polling locations.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday signed Assembly Bill 37, authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, which requires county elections officials to mail a ballot to every active registered voter for all elections, whether they request it or not. Voters can still choose to vote at physical polling locations, if they prefer.

The new law will also permanently extend the time mail ballots have to arrive at elections offices from three days to seven days after an election, a practice adopted in 2020.

“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections integrity and transparency,” Newsom said in a statement. “Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic and today we are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election.”

Just over 70% of eligible Californians voted in 2020, the highest general election turnout rate since 1952, according to state records.

A majority of California voters have used mail ballots for nearly a decade. Since 2012, over 50% of votes cast in general elections have been through mail ballots, though voters had to request such a ballot from their county officials.

In 2020, lawmakers passed a law requiring elections officials to mail ballots to active, registered voters for the presidential election in light of the pandemic. According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, 86.7% of votes were cast by mail ballots in that election.

The practice was extended through 2021, with lawmakers citing continued contagion concerns, and used in the Sept. 14 recall against Newsom. Ballot tracking in that election showed that Democrats were more likely to return mail ballots than Republicans.

California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson, in a statement, said the party is committed to safe, fair and secure elections.

“It’s no secret that Democrats have and will continue to try to manipulate election regulations for their political advantage. Republicans will hold them accountable through our election integrity operations – including litigation, where appropriate – and by recruiting and supporting candidates who will provide solutions to California’s numerous challenges,” she said.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant, said there’s “no point” in Republicans complaining about permanent vote by mail. Casting doubt on the security of mail ballots, he said, is more likely to discourage GOP turnout than encourage it.

“Denigrating the idea of voting by mail only hurts Republicans in maximizing their turnout,” he said, noting that turnout was low among Republicans in the Georgia Senate runoff in January and the Newsom recall, both elections where former President Donald Trump promoted unsubstantiated claims of fraud related to vote-by-mail ballots.

“Republicans would be better off enthusiastically signaling to Republican voters that they should feel confident in mail ballots,” he said.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, the state’s top election official, said AB 37 is likely to increase voter participation.

“Vote-by-mail has significantly increased participation of eligible voters. Voters like having options for returning their ballot whether by mail, at a secure drop box, a voting center or at a traditional polling station,” she said in a statement. “And the more people who participate in elections, the stronger our democracy and the more we have assurance that elections reflect the will of the people of California.”

The bill was passed through the Legislature earlier this year despite Republican opposition in both chambers.

Newsom also signed nine other election related bills Monday that aim to increase transparency and integrity in elections.

Among the additional bills are Assembly Bill 1367 by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, which increases penalties for the egregious personal use of campaign funds to up to two times the amount of the unlawful expenditure. Senate Bill 686 by Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Contra Costa, requires a limited liability company that is engaged in campaign activity to provide additional information regarding the members and capital contributors to the LLC.

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