Is Your State Ready For The Pandemic Election? A Look At AR, CA, IL, NJ, and VT

By Tierney Sneed, Matt Shuham, Kate Riga and Josh Kovensky,
Talking Points Memo
September 25, 2020


Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Arkansas, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont.

Every week, we’re looking at what states have done — or not done — to make voting easier during the coronavirus outbreak, where the fights over those moves have been the most contentious, and which states feature the kind of competitive races that could make things extra messy and volatile come November.

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If you want to know how serious California’s politicians are about mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic — or at least, how serious they are about looking serious — check out the new bill signed into law on last week: SB 739 makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally mislead Californians about their right to vote by mail.

Even before the pandemic, a growing number of Californians were embracing vote-by-mail: State data shows that, over the years, the percentage of ballots cast by mail in California crept up to encompass the majority of the state, reaching 72% earlier this year.

While in-person voting is still available for the general election, every registered, active voter in the state will receive a mail-in ballot for the November contest, in line with a handful of states across the country doing the same. And mailed-in ballots will be counted a full 17 days after Election Day if they are postmarked on time, an extension from years past and one that will allow even more time for the state’s famously slow counting process.

That extension could help some ballots arriving late because of mail delays, but risks remain: A study by the California Voter Foundation found that in 2018, most ballots rejected for late arrival in Sacramento County were actually postmarked the day after Election Day, and therefore wouldn’t have been helped by the 17-day grace period.

The state faces other hurdles: California has millions of eligible voters who self-identify as “limited English proficient” — more than some states have in their total voting populace. And whereas those voters would normally be able to ask poll workers for help at their precinct, this time around many will have to proactively call election officials to request a ballot in their preferred language.

The climate apocalypse poses a threat to voting as well. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated to escape wildfires over the last month, but evacuees can still vote in person, contact election officials to change their address, or even fill out their ballot online and then print and deliver it to election officials.

Advocates in the state voiced another fear to TPM: Distrust of the postal service, spurred by President Trump’s attacks on the institution, could discourage some voters. But Californians have a useful tool on their side in the form of a spiffy ballot tracker.

The state is a lock for Joe Biden. But interesting races abound down-ballot, perhaps most of all in the race to fill the currently vacant seat of convicted felon Duncan Hunter. Hunter’s former congressional competitor Ammar Campa-Najjar and former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) are locked in a dead heat. CA-25, currently represented by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) after Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA) stepped down last year, offers a rematch of the special election Garcia won just a few months ago, against State Assemblywoman Christy Smith. (Full Story)