Editor’s note: Journalism students at California State University, Sacramento contributed this story. This is a part of a series of stories being produced by students as part of a partnership with the Citizen. They are students of assistant professor and Sacramento Bee reporter Philip Reese.
For more information about the program, visit www.Facebook.com/SacStateJournalism.
Every voter in California received an official ballot in the mail prior to the 2020 general election, but this was nothing new for Elk Grove voters, who, along with the rest of Sacramento County voters, have been participating in this system since 2017.
The system, which encourages more vote-by-mail participation, was put in place statewide first through the signing of an executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom and then through the passing of Assembly Bill 860, which sought to mitigate the risks of spreading the novel corornavirus during the election.
After a successful election that saw a record number of voters, California leaders are now considering keeping the system on a permanent basis.
Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), who authored AB 860, wrote in an email: “The General Election was a success, thanks in large part to the reforms and protections put in place by AB 860.
“This year we saw historic levels of voter participation. More than 69% of eligible Californians voted in the General Election, which was the highest turnout since 1952. Moreover, approximately 15 million Californians voted in the General Election using a ballot that was mailed to them.”
AB 860 brought many changes to the way counties in California run their elections. But Sacramento County was one of 14 counties that had already implemented the system prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“(It was) not a big shift for us,” Sacramento County Registrar Courtney Bailey-Kanelos said. “We have been sending every voter a ballot by mail since the passing of the Voter Choice Act in 2017.”
She said that the system makes for a safer election. There are fewer in-person polling places which means there are fewer people to hire to run the election, and according to Bailey-Kanelos this means there are fewer chances of human error affecting the election.
“We like the model,” she said. “It provides consistency and security.”
Sacramento County, along with the other counties that chose to participate in the Voter Choice Act model, provided the blueprint for Berman’s AB 860.
“Several counties had already chosen to participate in the Voters Choice Model,” Berman said. “Approximately 78% of California’s active registered voters received a ballot in the mail before the March Primary Election this year, and more than 87% of California’s active registered voters would have received a ballot in the mail for the November General Election even without AB 860 or the Governor’s Executive Orders.”
Elk Grove resident Mya Irving, 22, had a positive experience in this, her first ever election.
“I actually enjoyed voting through mail,” she said. “I felt as if the process was easy and it was nice being able to do so in the comfort of my home.”
Irving explained that being able to vote from her own home was a safer option than having to wait in line at polling sites.
“I believe that voting by mail is a safer election process. In some states where the majority of residents are Republican, Democrats might feel as if it is unsafe to go to voting sites, and this can lead to them not participating in the election process at all,” she said. “I strongly believe that voting by mail should become permanent.”
The mandate to mail every California voter a ballot did give rise to controversy on how far the governor’s powers can reach.
Before AB 860 had a chance to pass through the California Assembly and the California Senate, Newsom made the decision to sign an executive order mandating that every county in California mail out a ballot to all registered voters.
Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of the governor to make and sign laws unilaterally.
“The governor, we believe, has not been abiding by our constitution, which is that the legislature gets to make the laws and the governor executes the laws,” Kiley said. “In a lot of cases this year, the governor has been making the laws himself and that’s the legislature’s job.
“That’s what the case is about, making sure he doesn’t continue to take power away from the legislature.”
Kiley, who voted yes on AB 860 when the bill came to a vote on the assembly floor, was not against the idea of having every voter receive a ballot by mail. Because of the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic posed, the idea made sense for Kiley, but what he did not like was the governor making decisions that are supposed to be up to the legislature.
Because AB 860 accomplished much of what Newsom’s executive order sought, the governor rescinded the executive order. Lawyers representing Newsom looked to have the case dismissed since, according to them, the rescinding of the executive order rendered the case moot.
But a Sutter County District court did not think the case was moot and agreed with the two Republican assembly members that the governor had violated the California Emergency Service Act.
“The Governor does not have the power or authority to assume the Legislature’s role of creating legislative policy and enactments,” wrote Judge Sarah Heckman in her ruling.