NEW REPORT: How California Expanded Voter Access in 2020 During a Global Pandemic 

(Los Angeles, CA) — After record voter turnout for the November 2020 elections, more than 360 voter suppression laws to limit access to the ballot box have been introduced by legislators in 47 states. Against this backdrop of voter suppression, a new report from California Common Cause shares another story: how California moved swiftly to strengthen access to the ballot in the 2020 general election during the pandemic.    

Golden State Democracy: How California Expanded Voter Access in 2020 During A Global Pandemic credits the state’s success to its previous commitments to modernize elections and early action by the Secretary of State to prepare for November in collaboration with county officials and election advocates. As a result, Californians did not have to choose between risking exposure to the pandemic and making their voices heard in the future of our communities. The report includes detailed observations from poll monitoring at over 1,200 voting sites in five Southern California counties comprising 54% of the state’s electorate, a voting age population larger than most states.   

In November 2020, California had its highest turnout of eligible voting-age population in nearly 70 years. Of the almost 18 million Californians who voted, 87% voted using the ballot that was automatically sent to them in the mail. Sending a ballot to every registered voter in the state, regardless of whether they made a request for such a ballot, was one of the state’s many adjustments to prepare for voting amid a pandemic. For comparison, in the 2018 midterm election, 65% of ballots cast were by mail.   

“California’s swift action and collaborative approach to developing its election plan in an evolving public health crisis helped to ensure that voters had multiple options to make their voices heard even at the height of the pandemic,” said Jonathan Mehta Stein, Executive Director at California Common Cause. “While California took bold steps to provide safe and accessible alternatives for voters, other states dragged their feet to provide even minimally acceptable accommodations. Some of those states are significantly rolling back voter access today, even as the pandemic continues, while California contemplates making some of its 2020 changes permanent.”   

The state of California took a highly collaborative approach to planning the November 2020 election: now-U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, then the California Secretary of State, convened a group of elections officials, advocates, and other stakeholders on a daily basis for weeks to discuss ideas for conducting the general election in a way that would maximize voter access and minimize voter disenfranchisement, while also keeping people safe from the virus. That working group developed dozens of changes that were eventually implemented via executive order and/or legislation.  

Additionally, election reforms passed and implemented in California over the preceding decade benefitted voters and county elections officials alike in an emergency situation like the pandemic. These reforms include online voter registration, same-day voter registration at all voting locations, automatic voter registration, no-excuse vote-by-mail programs that had high participation rates, and prepaid postage for vote-by-mail ballots, among other reforms.    

In part, the Golden State Democracy report is built on the efforts of 519 volunteer poll monitors who visited over 1,200 voting locations, with a total of more than 3,000 visits, on Election Day and in California’s early vote period.  

“The historic turnout in California is a testament not only to high engagement in our elections, but also to the collaboration between elections officials and advocates to make sure that voters are not left behind,” said Kiyana Asemanfar, Program Manager at California Common Cause and author of the report. “The success of the election in California can largely be attributed to reforms we implemented over the last decade, which have made our elections resilient to emergencies like the pandemic.”   

The For The People Act, currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate, would take many of California’s reforms from the past decade nationwide, and may hold the key to building a more participatory and inclusive democracy in all states. 

While lauding California’s swift actions that ensured historic turnout amid a global pandemic, the report also outlines issues and problems faced by some California voters. Many were unique to the 2020 election cycle, often stemming from tensions around the presidential election. For example, truck rallies in support of former President Trump blocked access to several voting sites. Generally, the report gives California elections officials high marks, but also addresses areas for improvement, including the implementation of new election technology and signage at voting locations.     

California still has work left to doGolden State Democracy details the voter participation disparities by race and age that persist in California despite all the work the state has done to build a truly representative democracy and the high voter turnout overall. 

The read the full report, click here.