Voting in the era of coronavirus will look different. For starters, every registered voter will receive a vote-by-mail ballot for this November’s general election under an executive order issued Friday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The order directs counties to send voters the ballots, but also acknowledges the importance of maintaining in-person voting options. It does not provide requirements for in-person voting, but says those will be coming later either from state officials or through a subsequent executive order by May 30.
“No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote,” Newsom said in a statement. “Mail-in ballots aren’t a perfect solution for every person, and I look forward to our public health experts and the Secretary of State’s and the Legislature’s continued partnership to create safer in-person opportunities for Californians who aren’t able to vote by mail.”
San Francisco was already intending to issue vote-by-mail ballots to all voters under legislation introduced by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, which the full Board of Supervisors is slated to consider on May 18.
As of April, about 70 percent of San Francisco voters were registered to receive vote by mail ballots. It would cost at least $1.5 million to mail ballots out to all voters, a budget analyst report said.
In addition to requiring vote by mail ballots for all registered voters, the legislation requires John Arntz, director of the San Francisco’s Department of Elections, to provide a written report to the Board of Supervisors by June 30 on its plans for the election. The report must include health protections for voters and poll workers, voter education and preliminary voting locations and hours as well curbside drop-off locations.
Mailing ballots out to every registered voter could become the standard beyond the pandemic in San Francisco. The legislation also requires a report by February 2021 on how the department could implement the 2016 California Voter’s Choice Act, which would require mailing ballots out to every registered voter.
Newsom’s order acknowledged the importance of having places for in-person voting.
“It is also essential to ensure that all Californians who may need access to in-person voting opportunities—including individuals with disabilities, individuals who speak languages other than English, individuals experiencing homelessness, and others who may find vote-by-mail less accessible than in-person voting—are able to access such opportunities and exercise their right to vote,” the order said.
Newsom said in the order that “my administration continues working in partnership with the Secretary of State and the Legislature on requirements for in-person voting opportunities” and that those should be issued by May 30.
Arntz told a board committee this week that absent those requirements he could not estimate how many in-person voting locations there could be, but he said, “We are looking at the polling places we’ve used in the recent elections to try and get a sense if we could use those locations in relation to social distancing.” There were 588 voting locations in the past March election.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors supporting every registered voter receiving a vote-by-mail ballot and emphasized the importance of in-person voting locations.
“Without significant options for in-person voting locations as well as early voting, there is a severe risk that historically underrepresented voters will face significant barriers to voting, long lines, and be disenfranchised,” the letter said. “Voters who are housing insecure or unhoused — as more voters will be this November due to displacement from the economic fallout of COVID-19 — are more likely to not receive a VBM ballot and would therefore need in-person voting options.”