California’s Mail-In Ballot Bill Passes a Vote, as Newsom Issues New Order

June 4, 2020 Updated: June 10, 2020

California’s debate over sending mail-in ballots to all voters is heating up. Governor Gavin Newsom has issued a new executive order on the issue of ballots. And a related bill, AB 860, is making its way through the state legislature.

Newsom released an executive order on June 3 mandating that mail-in ballots be sent to “every registered voter” for the Nov. 3 presidential elections. This echoed an order he had issued on May 8 to that effect, but it clarified a point of contention.

The new order says ballots will not be sent to inactive registered voters.

Watchdog groups and many state Republicans had expressed concern that sending ballots to all voters could pose a security threat—but especially if ballots were sent to inactive voters still on the roll.

Another criticism of the May 8 order had been that rules around allocating in-person polling stations were unclear.

“One of the issues that the governor put in his executive order is he gets to decide where there are in-person polling places, unilaterally—not that the state or county officials would decide that, not the normal way that it’s decided—but he would decide that,” Harmeet Dhillon of the Republican National Committee told The Epoch Times on May 28.

The concern is that polling places could be allocated to favor Democrat voters if the criteria is unclear, she explained.

In his June 3 order, Newsom stated that one in-person polling place would be made available for every 10,000 voters in each county beginning Oct. 31.

Mail-In Ballot Bill

Newsom’s order came one day after Assembly Bill 860 (AB 860) passed 4–1 in a Senate committee hearing. The bill will move on to the Senate Appropriations Committee in the coming weeks.

AB 860 seeks to have mail-in ballots sent to all registered voters. It was based on Newsom’s initial order on May 8 regarding sending out mail-in ballots.

Newsom drew on his emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic to make the order. The extent of those emergency powers has been challenged in a lawsuit by Republican groups. AB 860 would legislate some of Newsom’s changes to the election process, keeping them in place even if his order is invalidated.

At the June 2 hearing, Democratic senators and watchdog group Election Integrity Project, California (EIPCa) squared off in a debate over the bill. A particular point of contention was the bill’s language, stating “every registered voter” would receive a mail-in ballot.

Again, the call came for clarification that only active voters would be sent ballots.

“At the very least they should be able to close that loophole,” EIPCa’s director of legislative oversight, Ruth Weiss, told The Epoch Times ahead of the hearing.

A Raucous Hearing

At the hearing, Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) told the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments that AB 860 is intended to protect people from the pandemic by promoting vote-by-mail options for voters who do not want to vote in-person at polling places.

“This will ensure that every California voter has the ability to vote from the safety of their own home,” Berman said. He added that California’s current election laws clearly state “inactive voters do not receive election materials, which includes ballots,” and that in-person voting opportunities would remain.

“Unfortunately, opponents of this bill have argued that we are proposing to mail ballots to inactive voters. This obviously is not true,” Berman said.

EIPCa argued the state has failed to maintain accurate voter rolls and it would greatly increase the risk of voter fraud if the state sends vote-by-mail ballots to every registered voter, rather than only active voters.

Berman wanted to “dispel the rumors that are being perpetrated, or perpetuated, by groups and individuals who seek to undermine Californians’ faith in the integrity of our elections,” he said.

He blasted EIPCa for a May 29 letter opposing AB 860 in which EIPCa President Linda Paine wrote, “To maintain electoral integrity, there must be extra effort expended to assure the voters that the cure is not more lethal than the disease.”

“I find that argument to be incredibly offensive and in poor taste,” Berman told the committee. “Voting by mail has never caused anyone’s hospitalization or death.” He added that “forcing voters into crowded polling booths” during the pandemic might, however.

Weiss testified at the hearing via teleconference. She felt Berman had misinterpreted the letter’s metaphorical intent, and said there was “chaos and unreliability” in the state’s voter rolls.

In a recent analysis, EIPCa found 13 California counties have more than 100 percent of their eligible population numbers registered to vote. Los Angeles County has 114 percent of its eligible population registered to vote.

According to Weiss, 27 more counties have an “unrealistic voter registration of over 90 percent.”

“Our conservative data show that we have 458,000 people still on the active list who are likely deceased or have been relocated to other states, and they’ve not been removed to the inactive list, and they should not be sent a ballot unless they request it,” she said.

AB 860, she said, “would flood California with hundreds of thousands of ballots addressed to people who are no longer there,” making them available for “opportunists and fraudsters.”

EIPCa also opposes extending the grace period for the state to receive vote-by-mail ballots by 20 more days, she said, suggesting the delay will only further increase the risk of voter fraud.

“We know how to not miss a plane, or how to not miss a bus or miss the beginning of a movie. We know how to not get our phone or our electric bill cut off. We meet a deadline,” she said.

The Lone Republican on the Committee

Committee Chair Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) asked Weiss about the May 12 special elections, both won by Republicans. Mark Garcia won a congressional seat and Melissa Melendez was elected to the state Senate.

“If you’re aware of voting improprieties … do you advocate that we redo those two elections?” he asked.

“I’m not looking at past elections. I’m looking at protecting future elections,” Weiss responded.

Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Tehama) asked for an amendment to the proposed legislation making it clear that only active voters would be sent vote-by-mail ballots. He said he has a “great reservation about all the ballots floating out there now.”

Nielson is the lone Republican on the committee. He asked that “except inactive voters” be tacked onto the language of the bill after the text stating that vote-by-mail ballots would be sent “to every voter in the state.”

“We know there are a lot of them,” Nielson said of inactive voters, adding that some deceased voters have been on the rolls for years.

Nielsen’s proposed amendment was shot down in a 4-1 vote. The other committee members—Sens. Umberg, Connie Leyva (D-Chino), Henry Stern (D-Calabasas), and Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys)—all voted against it.

Nielsen urged Californians to encourage their families and neighbors to vote. He cited “the local polling place” as the best way to determine whether someone is registered.

After the Hearing

Weiss told The Epoch Times that she was offended by the “eye-roll attitude” that Sens. Berman and Umberg displayed at the hearing.

“I found it insulting and condescending,” Weiss said. EIPCa remains resolute in its fight to get the state to clean up its voter rolls, she added.

“They know that we are no longer asleep and that we will hold them accountable,” she said later in a statement. “I believe we have them rattled.”

Because Newsom’s new order made the language change Nielsen had requested for AB 860, clarifying that inactive voters would not be included, Weiss is hopeful state legislators may be more willing to make the amendment.

“It will be interesting to see if they turn their attitude around,” she said.