In summary

In the November election, California will have to meet the bipartisan demand from voters for mail ballots and redesign sites for safe, in-person voting.

By Mindy Romero and

Mindy Romero is a political sociologist and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, msromero@usc.edu.

Thad Kousser, Special to CalMatters

Thad Kousser is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at UC San Diego and a leader of the newelectorateproject.org research collaboration, tkousser@mail.ucsd.edu.

Even among his political base in California, President Donald Trump will find few allies in his fight against voting by mail.  

Historically, there has not been significant partisan disagreement over voting by mail in the Golden State, because Republicans, Democrats and independents alike have used it more and more over decades and are now embracing the option especially strongly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Support for casting mail ballots this November is unprecedentedly high and notably bipartisan in California’s electorate, our new survey of 12,276 eligible voters shows.  It is one of the few issues in our state that brings the parties together, rather than divides them.

Most Californians want to cast a ballot sent to them through the mail this fall.  As a whole, 52% of California’s eligible voters prefer to mail in their ballot, while another 18% prefer to use a mail ballot but drop it off at a vote center or drop box.  Together, 70% of California’s electorate prefer a mail ballot – a higher number than in past general elections, and much higher than in the nation overall.

A question that always looms in these polarized times is whether a change in how people vote will change who votes, tilting the playing field in favor of either party. Trump raised the issue when he said the process of voting by mail “doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

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But research on prior elections in California has shown that when counties shift toward voting by mail, these transitions have no impact on each party’s turnout or vote share. Has a divide opened up this year in how voters aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties prefer to cast their ballots?

When we asked California’s eligible voters how they wanted to cast their ballots this November, we found no significant differences along party lines.  Majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike prefer to vote by mail.  We also found no evidence that a move to conducting elections primarily through the mail in California would be likely to bring any partisan bias.  When we asked likely voters whether they would turn out if voting by mail was their only option, nearly identical percentages of Democrats (2.8%) and Republicans (2.7%) responded that they wouldn’t vote in this type of election. 

The fact that California’s long-standing bipartisan embrace of voting by mail has continued this year is vital, now that state and local elections officials face the daunting dilemma of how to hold a presidential election during a pandemic.

On May 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom provided one piece of this puzzle by issuing an executive order requiring all county registrars to send a mail ballot to all registered voters, although this order was challenged by the National Republican Committee and the California Republican Party. Recently, legislation was signed into law, with Republican support, that ensures that all active registered voters in the state will be mailed a ballot for the November election.       

A second executive order by Newsom on June 3 requires the provision of robust in-person voting options for Californians – including those with disabilities, with limited English, who face obstacles to voting by mail, or those who only feel comfortable with an in-person experience. 

Planning safe and accessible options for these voters is crucial as well, because while Californians’ embrace of voting by mail is broad, it is not universal.  About 30% of all eligible voters still say they want to vote in person.  

As county elections officials work to create in-person options, they should tailor their approach to the communities that need them most, to avoid any disproportionate impact.  And they should adhere to social distancing practices to ensure that voters are comfortable enough to exercise their right without feeling that they are risking their health. 

To plan this approach, it is important to recognize that preferences for voting by mail in California differ by race and ethnicity.  

We found that 54% of whites and Asian Americans prefer to use this method of voting in November, while 48% of African Americans and Latinos prefer to cast their ballots by mail. These differences suggest that if any voting options are made completely unavailable to eligible voters, such changes could have a disparate impact across racial and ethnic groups. 

We also know that greater proportions of voters with limited English proficiency and voters with disabilities prefer to vote in person, compared with eligible voters overall.  In our survey, 37% of respondents who reported that they spoke a language other than English at home indicated they preferred an in-person voting experience. 

In-person voting sites can also provide access to technology that is critical for those who may have difficulty filling out a mail ballot.  A striking 63% of voters with disabilities indicated they would like to use an accessible voting machine if they voted at a polling place or vote center.  These findings emphasize the importance of ensuring that in-person voting options continue to serve the needs of both of these communities. 

Setting social-distancing guidelines at voting sites, such as space between voting booths, poll workers and voters standing in line, matters to eligible voters. Only half of all eligible voters in our California survey said that they would be comfortable waiting in a precinct without distancing guidelines. But when we asked the question again, this time telling respondents that social distancing measures would be put into place at the voting site, the level of comfort rose by 15 to 20 percentage points. 

This demonstrates the paramount importance that California’s electorate places on social distancing measures for in-person voting in November. It is also clear how important it will be to educate the electorate about the social distancing measures put in place. 

As counties work with our state’s Secretary of State to administer an election like no other, it will be important to keep in mind that while most voters want to cast a ballot that has been mailed to them, many of those who still prefer to vote in person are among our state’s historically underrepresented populations.  Making our electorate truly representative requires providing safe voting sites along with the mail ballot option.  

Trump has charged, contrary to all evidence, that moving to voting by mail would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”  California’s recent history and current polling shows how false this claim is. Basing our approach to the election on evidence is the best way to combat the harmful myths about voting by mail that the president is attempting to create. 

Using data and our long experience with different methods of voting, our state can come together to meet the bipartisan demand from voters for mail ballots and to redesign voting sites to ensure a safe and accessible voting option for every Californian.

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Mindy Romero has also written about voter suppression, an analysis of Super Tuesday voters, and a threat to democratic institutions.

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