The California Senate passed a bill on Jan. 28 that would require vote-by-mail ballots to be sent to all voters for this year’s special elections, sparking concern in opponents who fear the proposed law could normalize pandemic-style elections and discourage traditional in-person voting.
Existing law required county elections officials to mail a ballot to every registered voter for the Nov. 3 general election. Senate Bill 29 (SB 29), which passed by a 29-7 vote and now heads to the State Assembly, would extend that mandate to all elections proclaimed or conducted prior to Jan. 1, 2022.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), who voted against the measure, told The Epoch Times that the bill threatens to erode voting rights that are precious. “We must do everything we can to ensure the integrity of our election system by opposing these attempts to destroy it,” she said via email.
“Now, more than ever, Californians need to have confidence in the integrity of our elections and that they are free from manipulation. SB 29 only seeks to make mail-in voting more ‘normal’ by extending its uses beyond its stated purpose of preventing COVID transmission.”
Proponents maintain that vote-by-mail ballots sent to all registered voters for special elections will provide a safer alternative to voting in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), the bill’s author, attributed California’s historic voter turnout in the Nov. 3 general election to vote-by-mail ballots, which he asserted were “safe, secure, and accurate.”
During the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month, Umberg said the election “worked out quite well except for a couple of irregularities, primarily in Orange County.” He cited the highest voter turnout since President Harry S. Truman was in office.
In addition to providing more safety for voters and poll workers, “SB 29 simply takes some of the provisions that were enacted because of the COVID crisis in the November 2020 election and incorporates them into special elections in 2021,” Umberg said at the Jan. 21 hearing.
Potential for Voter Fraud
Election Integrity Project California (EIPCa), a citizens’ watchdog group focused on California elections, fears that the newly proposed state law opens the door to increased voter fraud by extending Assembly Bill 860 (AB 860), which required county officials to send vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters statewide for the Nov. 3 election.
In a letter of opposition to SB 29 addressed to California Senate committee members, EIPCa states that for the November election, officials mailed ballots to 416,633 registrants who had not voted for 12 or more years.
EIPCa Director of Legislative Oversight Ruth Weiss cited those statistics and others contained in the letter at a Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee hearing on Jan. 14, where she urged the committee to reject SB 29 and “not to double down on such a disastrous mistake.”
“A vibrant and functional democratic process cannot tolerate California’s current disregard for clear errors in the voter rolls,” she told the committee. “Californians can have no faith in a system that would perpetrate policies that lead to the statistics such as the ones our opposition letter provides.”
Sen. Melendez concurred, saying, “The smoke screen of COVID should not be the basis for degrading our election system without addressing the loopholes and inaccuracies of voter information. Inaccurate voter rolls are the primary loophole that can and will be exploited using all mail-in ballot elections.”
Adele Tagaloa, secretary of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) and site lead for the Orange County Registrar of Voters, supported the bill at the Jan. 14 committee meeting. She cited Orange County’s historic 87 percent voter turnout and credited AB 860 for protecting voters and poll workers during the November election.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my co-workers and I really appreciated the protections put in place for the employees that have to work at the polls,” said Tagaloa. “COVID-19 is obviously still with us, but that does not mean that the health and safety of both voters and our election workers at the polls need to be put at risk when we have an election.”
The California Teachers Association (CTA) also filed a letter in support of SB 29.
EIPCa’s Weiss said her organization fielded calls in October and November from thousands of angry and confused voters who had received ballots for those who had died, moved away, or never lived at their address. She said the calls were documented as citizen incident reports signed under penalty of perjury.
“The most troubling calls of all for me were the ones from non-citizens working properly through the system to reach their goal of U.S. citizenship. Knowing the rules, they had never registered to vote, and they received a ballot which terrified them and their citizen spouses,” Weiss said.
“Some even shared very emotionally with me that when they called the registrar of voters in their county in a panic, they were told by the person answering the phone that if they received the ballot, they were entitled to use it, and they were encouraged to do so.”
Weiss blamed the state’s “continued lack of federally required voter roll maintenance” for the problem. She said that if SB 29 becomes law, it would “put those same voters and others through that same trauma again.”
“The very individuals that we want to adopt and embrace into our American family are victims of fraud voter rolls and automatic registration policies going awry. AB 860 magnified these flaws, facilitated great harm to thousands of individuals, and did damage to voter confidence,” she said.
At the Jan. 14 committee hearing, two speakers from each side were allowed to speak for three minutes each. The rest of the commenters were restricted to stating their name, affiliation, and whether they were in support or opposed.
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama), who voted against the bill on Jan. 28, criticized the Senate and its committees for restricting public comments.
“Everybody else gets to come up and say their names and wave. I do not consider that public participation,” Nielsen said.
“With that egregious step that has been taken here in the Senate, I’m now going to be objecting even in our committee hearings to stifling the public input. How frustrating it’s got to be for the average citizen who wants to have their voice heard in government.”
Following the testimony, both committees passed the bill, by 4-1 and 4-2 votes respectively, sending it back to the Senate floor for the final readings. Considered an urgency statute, the bill required two-thirds approval to pass.
SB 29 now moves to the California Assembly for the same procedural steps. If it passes in the Assembly, the bill would be sent to the governor to be signed into law.