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Editorial: Californians want to keep voting by mail as an option, and they should

A police officer drops off ballots for the gubernatorial recall election at the Boyle Heights Senior Center on Sept. 14.
A Los Angeles police officer drops off ballots for the gubernatorial recall election at the Boyle Heights Senior Center on Sept. 14.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom has hundreds of bills to consider by Oct. 10 and choose to sign, veto or ignore (in which case they would automatically become law).

But here’s one that he shouldn’t hesitate to sign: Assembly Bill 37 would make permanent the pandemic-era practice of sending mail ballots to all registered voters in California. This has proved to be a boon for voter participation and popular, too.

After two successful all-mail ballot elections — last week’s recall election and the 2020 presidential election — there’s no reason to let this commonsense voting practice lapse and return to the clunky old system that focused resources on thousands of sparsely used day-of polling centers.

For one thing, voters have made it clear they prefer casting their ballots this way — even before COVID-19 made in-person voting risky. In the four statewide elections before 2020, most voters used mail ballots — making up 65% of ballots cast in 2018. And in the 2020 presidential election, 87% of voters used a mail ballot.

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More important, California has been moving steadily toward universal mail balloting for several years. In 2016, the Legislature passed the Voter’s Choice Act that allowed counties to swap the 20th century voting model of many small precincts open on election day and available only to nearby voters in favor of centralized voting centers that were open for longer hours and for several days before the election, and where any voter in the county could cast a ballot in person or drop off a mail ballot. The key to making this new model work was sending all registered voters in those counties a ballot in the mail weeks before election day.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced California to fast-track its plans to move to universal mail balloting. No reason to backtrack now.

As of 2019, 15 counties, including Los Angeles County, had embraced this new voting system and universal mail balloting. But last year, lawmakers hastened the transition by requiring the other 43 counties to send all their voters a mail ballot too for the 2020 presidential election as a safety measure. Later, they extended this provision through 2021.

It appears to have paid off in terms of higher turnout. A study of the 2020 election by the Public Policy Institute of California found a correlation between universal mail ballots and higher voter turnout. States such as California that mailed a ballot to every registered voter last year reported voter turnout increased by 4.6% on average over the 2016 election.

Sadly, some Republican-controlled state legislatures don’t seem to care about the improvements in turnout and are moving to clamp down on access to mail ballots for future elections. Those states are capitalizing on the unfounded fear stirred up by conservatives and President Trump that mail ballots lead to widespread fraud. At least, that’s the ostensible reason, since there’s no evidence that is the case in California or other states. More likely, the GOP objections have to do with the fact that mail ballots encourage participation among those who are often disenfranchised by the traditional in-person voting system — and who tend to back Democratic candidates.

Voters like the flexibility provided by mail ballots and voting centers. And that should be reason enough to make universal mail ballots the rule in California, not the pandemic exception.


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