Capitol Alert

16-year-olds can pre-register. Free postage comes next. California is all in on voter access

How can I be sure my ballot counts?

Brandi Orth, Fresno County Clerk of Registrar Voters, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how ballots are counted in Fresno County.
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Brandi Orth, Fresno County Clerk of Registrar Voters, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how ballots are counted in Fresno County.

In California, you can register to vote online. You can request a mail ballot without providing a reason. If your ballot is postmarked by Election Day, it can arrive up to three days late and still count. Starting next year, you won’t even need a stamp.

As states across the country have moved aggressively to crack down on alleged voter fraud, California has shifted rapidly in the other direction, passing landmark legislation intended to make it easier to vote and to count as many ballots as possible.

The change has been propelled by voting rights advocates, seeking to fix unintended consequences as a growing majority of Californians vote by mail, and by Democratic politicians hoping to spike plummeting turnout. Many of the new laws aim to boost participation among infrequent voters, such as young people, that generally favor Democrats.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, said the election of more minorities, who represent the communities that were once blocked from the polls, also “spurred us to look at how important access was.”

“You have a whole group of legislators that came out of” voter organizing, said Gonzalez Fletcher, a San Diego Democrat who authored the prepaid postage bill and previously carried legislation to automatically register voters through the Department of Motor Vehicles. “It’s changed everything.”

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But their effort is not without detractors: Most of the policies have passed with almost no Republican support, amid partisan complaints that the changes are undermining election integrity.

The same voter advocates behind many of the proposals also criticize California for making some protocols optional for counties, creating a piecemeal approach to voting across the state that disadvantages certain communities.

Voter suppression elsewhere

Voter suppression has gained national attention this election cycle, as the balance of power in many states rests on exceedingly close races, prompting McClatchy to examine its impact across the country.

Since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key protections in the Voting Rights Act, mostly conservative states have adopted laws creating additional obstacles for voters, such as showing identification at the polls and purging those who have not been active from the rolls. Supporters say this is meant to discourage fraudulent voting, but critics counter that voter fraud is a vanishingly small problem and the real motivation is dissuading potential Democratic voters.

California, on the other hand, has made a push to be as expansive as possible. Lawmakers introduced major bills every session over the past half-decade to bolster voter access.

In 2014, the state added three days of leeway for mail ballots that are sent before an election but arrive after. The following year, it gave voters who forget to sign their mail ballots an extra week to complete an affidavit with county election officials and still have their vote counted.

A new system approved in 2016 allows counties to move to all-mail ballot elections, which some did for the first time in June. And this summer, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure requiring counties to provide prepaid postage for mail ballots starting next year.

During this time, California also added pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, created conditional registration up until Election Day, expanded the languages in which voting material is available, tightened the restrictions for removing somebody from the voter rolls, and allowed anybody to turn in a mail ballot if it is signed by the voter.

Many of the ideas emerged from a collaborative of voter advocacy groups and local elections officials called the Future of California Elections, which was convened in 2011 by the James Irvine Foundation.

“On the whole, I’m really proud of California,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the election process. “We are definitely treating voters better than they are being treated in other states.”

Voting laws vary by county

Alexander, however, still worries about unequal access to voting in different parts of California. Because the state has to reimburse counties if they mandate policy changes, some of the recent laws, such as all-mail elections, are optional. Alexander said that’s a problem for more rural or poorer counties, which may not have adequate resources to adopt the new guidelines.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued last year because some counties were reaching out to voters to correct signatures that did not match what was on file while others were simply discarding the mail ballots they could not verify.

Lawyers argued that this disparate approach disenfranchised infrequent voters, young people and those for whom English is a second language, all of whom had their ballots tossed at a higher rate than the average Californian. Experts estimated that election officials discounted nearly 46,000 votes in the 2016 presidential election.

In March, a judge ruled in favor of the ACLU, and California followed up with a bill this year requiring counties to notify voters whose ballots are contested and give them an opportunity to verify their signatures. A similar lawsuit is now playing out in Georgia, where Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, locked in a tight campaign for governor, has been accused of unfairly rejecting mail ballots due to signature mismatches.

“The only thing sadder than people not voting is people trying to vote and not having their ballot be counted,” Alexander said.

Critics charge voting fraud

One of California’s most high-profile efforts to expand voter access has sparked fierce backlash.

Since it took effect this spring, the Motor Voter program has been plagued by technical issues, resulting in tens of thousands of registration errors. In October the DMV admitted that it improperly registered about 1,500 customers to vote, some of who were not citizens.

Republicans seized on the problems as evidence of both government incompetence and voter fraud. When Democratic lawmakers blocked a request to audit the department, their GOP colleagues called it a cover-up.

“The Democrat theology is that there’s no such thing as voter fraud,” California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said in a recent interview. “Voter fraud is not anywhere near as prevalent as Republicans believe it is, but it’s a hell of a lot more prevalent than Democrats believe it is.”

“I think it’s clear they didn’t want the DMV audited because they didn’t like what we would have found,” he added.

President Donald Trump ignited the debate two years ago when he falsely claimed that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, causing him to lose the popular vote. But researchers have repeatedly dismissed the notion that there is widespread voting fraud.

In California, the Secretary of State’s Office investigated 149 alleged violations of the elections code that year. About three-quarters of the cases involved suspected double voting, while 17 concerned fraudulent voter registration. Ultimately, six were referred to district attorneys for further review or prosecution.

Alexander acknowledged that a small number of people may be wrongly registered to vote, but it is unlikely they are voting and certainly not at a scale to tip an election. She said ensuring equal access to voting and improving voter confidence in the security of election outcomes is far more important.

“When people feel that their vote counts, they are going to turn to the electoral process to work out their issues rather than some other process, which might be violent or dangerous,” she said.

Gonzalez Fletcher, meanwhile, is already thinking about possible future legislation to expand same-day registration, weekend voting locations and education for young people about how to vote.

“I’m not into solving problems that don’t exist,” she said.

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