Even in a pandemic, California’s elections chief wants voters to have options.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla is pushing to send every voter a ballot in the mail this fall, but he’s reluctant to make it a mail-only election, since voters can get language or accessibility assistance at vote centers and polling places.
Padilla spoke with CapRadio’s Nicole Nixon about how he’s planning to administer an election during the pandemic.
How likely is it that we will have a general election done entirely by mail in California?
The idea of sending every voter a ballot in the mail makes all the sense in the world to me. The good news is in California, voting by mail has been growing in popularity. In the March primary, for example, more than 75% of voters in California received a ballot by mail. So it's just a matter of closing out the last 25% gap, but in California, I think we are better positioned to be able to do that, than [other] states across the country.
But we are not advocating for a vote-by-mail only election. There's still a lot of voters in California who may prefer to vote in person or drop off their ballot or in person, and a lot of voters who may need assistance to be able to vote. So while we want to expand vote-by-mail, we have to pay appropriate attention to providing as many safe in-person voting opportunities on and before Election Day as well.
How will this pandemic change what vote centers and polling places look like? Do you plan to release guidance to counties about implementing physical distancing measures and sanitizing those places?
For those people who will vote in person in November, it will very, very likely look a little bit different. No more community rooms with 20-30 voting booths side-by-side. Spacing them out six feet apart is going to require larger locations.
We're working hand-in-hand with counties to identify new locations that make more sense for voting during a global health pandemic.We're going to have to help them recruit a new generation of poll workers as well, because a lot of the seniors and retirees that have helped administer Election Day in years past are not going to be available come this November.
But we'll have the protocols in place. We'll observe a lot of masks, a lot of hand sanitizers, a lot of gloves, etc.; all part of making sure that our elections are accessible, secure and safe for everybody.
What are the next steps to making sure that every voter gets a ballot in the mail? Is that something you have to work with counties on? Or does that require executive action from Governor Newsom?
I do anticipate in the foreseeable future an executive order that will outline the broad framework for the November elections. We will certainly need legislative support as well for some of the costs incurred with expanding vote by mail in California. And maybe most importantly, properly funding a voter outreach campaign to ensure that every voter in the state is aware of the changes to how we're administering the November election and what their options are for voting and voting safely.
The election is still six months away. Do you hope that we're in a better position then where we don't have to be talking about closing most of the polling places in the state?
I think it’s important for everybody to recall that over the course of our nation's history, our democracy has proven resilient. Americans have gone to vote in every election — in times of peace, in times of war. Even during the Great Depression, people turned out to vote and even during prior flu pandemics.
We don’t know exactly what the situation will be come November, but we do know that there will still be some level of risk. We cannot afford to wait until October to make the adjustments necessary.
So as we discuss the November general election, it's not a matter of if there will be an election. The question is how we administer the election in a way that's accessible, secure and safe for everybody, and it begins with sending every voter about in the mail automatically.
Do you have any security or privacy concerns with conducting an election primarily by mail?
Voting by mail is not new in California and not new throughout the country. It is a proven practice that, yes is more convenient for voters, but also has been demonstrated to be helpful from an accessibility standpoint and a security standpoint. So we think it's a core element of conducting an accessible, secure and safe election in November.
The ultimate formula is this: more people who vote early, whether it's by mail or safely in-person means fewer people showing up on election day. Hopefully shorter lines, smaller crowds keeping us all healthier in the process.
What do you make of President Trump’s comments about mail voting being easier to commit fraud?
Have there been any cases of that in California? Look, the evidence is clear. Voter fraud is exceedingly, exceedingly rare both in California and throughout the country. When I hear Trump make his baseless claims about voter fraud, a couple of things come to mind: number one, what a hypocrite, but that's no surprise. He may attack vote by mail, he'll threaten to undermine the postal service, but he himself is a vote by mail voter. It is nothing but a pretext to advance his voter suppression agenda. And number two, it’s his effort to distract from his failure to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
Did you learn anything about what to do or what not to do when you watched the primary election in Wisconsin a few weeks ago?
We’ve been watching every other state as they've held their primaries, including Wisconsin, and including how voters went to the polls in South Korea recently.
There's a lot of specific measures that we may adopt as we prepare for the November election. But the biggest lesson of all is to make sure that voters understand clearly what their options are for how to vote, because it was on the eve of Wisconsin's primary, that voters were still not sure whether or not there would be a primary election. We cannot afford as a state or as a nation a patchwork of mitigation measures come the November general election.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
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