In summary

Usually, I’m spiritually invested in voting in person, but now I am a convert to voting by mail. Thank you, pandemic.

By Justin Hughes, Special to CalMatters

Justin Hughes teaches intellectual property and international trade courses at Loyola Law School, Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, Justin.hughes@lls.edu.

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A sucker for voting – that’s probably what President Donald Trump would call me.   Every election, primaries included, I have dutifully gone to the polls to vote. I love it. 

I love seeing the poll workers methodically work the registration books, check people in and shepherd them to the voting booths or machines.  I love listening to people talk, sometimes awkwardly, as they stand in line – waiting not to take something, but to contribute something.   

Over the years, I’ve also done election monitoring – in El Salvador, Haiti, Albania, Mali.  Whenever I hear my fellow citizens complain about long lines at our polls, I remember a Sunday in El Salvador when I watched people stand for four to five hours in the hot tropical sun for the chance to change their government. And I stood with them.  

When Americans talk about potential election violence, I remember the Albanian poll workers who, at the end of the voting day, pleaded with my monitoring partner and me to stay with them and escort them back to the capital: they were afraid for their ballot boxes – and their lives.   

You might say I’m spiritually invested in voting in person.

But now I am a 100% convert to voting by mail. Thank you, pandemic.  

My partner and I were away from California most of the fall, so when I returned, I carefully sorted through a big stack of mail looking for my mail-in ballot. I felt like Charlie searching for the golden ticket in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I didn’t know what the ballot would look like – I was terrified I would accidentally recycle it with some “amazing” offer from Spectrum or American Express.  

But there it was. I laid the multi-page ballot out on the kitchen counter – it looked well-designed and easy to follow.  

And with that stack of mail, I had sorted out all the flyers for and against different state propositions as well as the pile of promotional flyers for Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu and a smaller number for his opponent, Nithya Raman. All that sat on the right side of my ballot.

On the left side, I had the Los Angeles Times guide to the propositions, CalMatters explanations of the same ballot measures, and printouts of emails from colleagues on different judicial races. 

I thought: this is a wonderful way to vote. I could go back and forth, reading different sources I trust on each proposition, vote on that measure, then repeat the process with the next proposition.

I could look at different endorsement cards that had been in my mailbox and try to figure out which ones were from real organizations and which ones were from opaque “Citizens for …” entities.   

I knew Proposition 19 was about a property tax break for seniors moving to smaller homes, so why were the firefighters sending out flyers on that? Ah, now I see the proposition seems to close a loophole and dedicate some funds to firefighting. With the focus of my civic duty sitting on the countertop before me, I studied that more carefully than I would have before.

The stack of flyers from the L.A. City Council race also got more careful attention when I was voting at home. Ryu’s literature went negative on his challenger, but Raman’s literature kept to a positive campaign. Hmmm. And one piece of Ryu’s literature accused his opponent of being “supported by divisive radicals” while another in the stack attacked her for “personal wealth” from owning stock in Google and Comcast. Really, a stock-owning radical?  Sounds like half of west LA.  

With the leisure of studying all this literature at the moment of voting, I voted for Raman. Or, more precisely, I voted against the way Councilman Ryu campaigned.

I could have dropped the completed ballot in any postbox, but I went to the post office. Dropping the ballot in the mailbox gave me a little of that same adrenaline rush I get at a polling place.

California set up an online system to track our ballots, a bit like the way the American Airlines app lets you track your checked baggage. The ballot website was as easy to use. Who says government can’t innovate? Did USPS pick my ballot up? Yes. Did they deliver it to the election office? Yes. Did the election office acknowledge receiving it and promise it would be counted? Yes.

Before the pandemic, five western states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Utah – were already largely voting by mail. This year, states from Vermont to California moved to make mail-in balloting easier – either by mailing a ballot to everyone or at least mailing ballot applications to everyone. 

Easy access to mail-in voting combined with the pandemic and contentious politics turned America into an early voting nation: the number of early votes cast approached 100 million, about two-thirds of which came via mail-in ballots. On Election Day – with 12 million Californians having already cast their vote – Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke positively about mailing ballots to all Californians permanent.  

If this is the future of voting, it’s wonderful. 

In California, the combination of paper ballots and high-tech tracking was a reassuring blend of the old and the new – probably more reassuring than in-person, touchscreen ballot machines. And it’s harder for bad folks to intimidate people voting in the safety of their own home; harder for misinformation to keep people away from their civic right and duty.  

Yep, I’m still a sucker for voting.  I guess Trump might ask “what’s in it for you?”   The vitality of democracy.

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Justin has also written about churches, cinemas and the politics of COVID-19.

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