This week, California became the eighth state in the country to make universal mail-in ballots permanent. On Monday, the day before National Voter Registration Day, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 37. The bill makes the temporary practice of receiving mail-in ballots, which has been in place since the 2020 election because of the coronavirus pandemic, the new standard for voting across the state.
Under the new law, every registered voter in California will receive their ballot in the mail 29 days before every election. They can complete and return it using a prepaid envelope, drop it in a secure box, or opt to vote in person. If they vote by mail, they can track the transit online.
“Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement. “We are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election.”
In 2020, 17.5 million Californians—65% of eligible voters—turned out for the presidential election, the highest results in decades. Of those, more than 86% were cast by mail. Results from the 2021 recall election are still being calculated.
“The bill will permanently expand access and increase participation in our elections by making voting more convenient and meeting people where they are. Vote-by-mail has significantly increased participation of eligible voters,” said California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber.
The number of eligible voters casting ballots across the state has increased in recent years, but there’s still a gap, especially among those considered unlikely to turn out: young people, those with a criminal record, low-income families, and communities of color. These marginalized communities face legacies of systemic racism and avoidance by parties and campaigns, which is why California voters tended to be white, wealthier, and older than the general population.
Voting rights activists believe a permanent mail-in ballot system will be especially beneficial for marginalized groups, since the 2020 election saw dramatic growth in turnout from low-income and communities of color across the state. Because of decades of work from community organizations, student groups, civil rights advocates, churches and faith groups, and others, these populations, especially Black voters, have shifted elections. In the most recent presidential election, areas in California with a high proportion of people of color cast 26% more ballots from 2016 to 2020, with predominantly white areas only increasing by 18%.
“Our long history mobilizing Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and young voters using the most effective methods, including door-to-door campaigning and phone calls in multiple languages, paid off. The proof is in the initial numbers,” said Christina Livingston, executive director of the Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment Action, and Luis Sanchez, executive director of PowerCA Action in a statement about the recent gubernatorial recall election.
Both organizations are part of Million Voters Action Fund, an alliance of seven community-driven state and regional networks working to strengthen and expand democracy by mobilizing new and infrequent voters. The effort shows that “when people of color lead, when communities of color are engaged, and when people closest to the problems are part of the solution, democracy wins,” they explained.
Through these types of alliances and local organizing efforts, voter registration and turnout is growing. Now that vote-by-mail is permanent, these structures can help make sure voices are heard every election, especially for those who face barriers and questions when trying to vote.
“Broadening access to vote-by-mail is particularly integral to facilitating college student’s civic engagement,” said Cameron Lange, co-director of Stanford Votes, a student-run organization that focuses on increasing voter turnout on campus.
Lange explained how students can have questions on how to vote because they change their address, travel between semesters, or take time off from classes.
“Without robust access to vote by mail or absentee ballots, voting can be challenging,” she said.
Stanford Votes helps other students with voting issues big and small, ranging from whether new Californians can vote or if a student should mark their dorm room on a ballot.
Though vote-by-mail access is a big win for marginalized groups across the state, language barriers are still a concern. Voters can currently only request a ballot in certain languages (including Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Thai, and others), and not all languages are available. Some government websites about voting and the process are also almost entirely in English.
With growing populations of Latinx, Black, and Asian voters across the state, many advocates are working to fill this gap and build trust through engaging people in a way they can actually understand: translating materials, holding information sessions in multiple languages, replying to questions via direct message and text, phone banking and door knocking, and working with influencers and street vendors get the message out that voting by mail is now a permanent option.
These groups aren’t waiting until the next election to have these conversations. Organizations like the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights in Los Angeles run workshops and clinics that help immigrants adjust their status or apply for citizenship, while also supporting them during election time. At Stanford, students receive messages encouraging them to sign up for a ballot before they register for classes.
Programs that connect needs and services with civic information are seeing success. Although vote-by-mail could expand the electorate, it requires ongoing investment by communities and government to turn into turnout.
The new vote-by-mail system isn’t the only reform passed this week in California. Newsom also signed 10 other election bills, including increasing penalties for improper use of campaign funds, banning political contributions from foreign governments, and requiring governors to submit copies of their tax returns.
The efforts were opposed by Republicans in the legislature, mirroring Republican-led states’ pushes to limit vote-by-mail and other reforms under the guise of combating voter fraud.
“It should not be nearly as challenging to vote as it is,” Lange said. “People have so many burdens in their day to day lives already. We need to facilitate civic engagement as quickly and easily as possible.”