SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Fearing a surge of coronavirus cases that could force a second statewide shutdown in the fall, the California Senate on Thursday approved a measure that would guarantee all registered voters get a ballot in the mail before the November election.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has already ordered ballots to be mailed. But Republican congressional candidate Darrell Issa and the Republican National Committee have sued, arguing his order is illegal. The bill is an attempt by lawmakers to make sure it happens anyway.
Election officials nationwide have explored vote-by-mail options this year because of the pandemic, prompting condemnation from President Donald Trump, who has claimed that “mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed.”
Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah — conduct elections entirely by mail. None have reported significant fraud.
Most California voters already vote by mail. More than 87% of registered voters are scheduled to receive a ballot in the mail before the November election, including all of the 4.3 million registered voters in Los Angeles County.
Still, some Senate Republicans opposed the bill because it would let county election officials count mail-in ballots if they are received within 20 days of the election. Right now, the law says mail-in ballots only count if they are received within three days of an election.
“That does suggest to the people who have grave concerns about this that it encourages fraud,” Republican Sen. Patricia Bates said. “Seventeen days suggests there is some other agenda there, and we don’t need more conspiracy theories going on with regards to our elections.”
Lawmakers included the extra time because they fear a second wave of coronavirus cases could force another round of stay-at-home orders that might delay ballots delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Also, the Postal Service has been consistently losing money as it faces competition from commercial shippers. The Postal Service has warned it could run out of money this year without a taxpayer bailout.
“While our post office is usually quite efficient, on occasions they are not as efficient as we would like them to be,” Democratic state Sen. Tom Umberg said. “We don’t want to disenfranchise anyone, not through any fault of their own.”
The California secretary of state’s office says sending every voter a ballot will cost an extra $72 million. Most of it would fall on local governments, with the state paying $13 million for an outreach campaign. But lawmakers believe most of that cost could be covered by the federal government.
The Senate passed the bill with a 31-7 vote. It still must be approved by the state Assembly before it can become law.
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