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All Californians Can Vote By Mail In 2020, But Some Counties Will Have Polling Places, Too

Vote-by-mail ballots wait to be opened at the Sacramento county registrar's office on March 3, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
Vote-by-mail ballots wait to be opened at the Sacramento county registrar's office on March 3, 2020.

This November all registered voters in California will have the option to vote by mail. The goal is to allow people to avoid public spaces where the coronavirus could spread and instead be able to vote from the safety of their own homes. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Cathy Darling Allen, the Shasta County clerk, about what’s new this year.

Erik Neumann: Explain what the voting system is going to be like in Shasta County this November.

Cathy Darling Allen: For November's election, we will be mailing a ballot to every active, registered voter in the county. That's different than the way we've conducted elections in the past and it's due to the executive order signed by the governor earlier this year in reaction and response to the COVID-19 crisis. We also made the decision to also open up all of our precincts, that we had open in March, for November's election. Our intention is to keep people as safe as possible. By opening up everything that we've had open in the recent past we are hoping to have the fewest number of people gathered together as possible.

EN: If Governor Newsom put out this executive order requiring that all residents should get vote-by-mail ballots, why do counties also get to choose additional ways for people to vote, like having polling places like is happening in Shasta County?

CDA: It's really important that we make sure we are not neglecting our marginalized communities and especially folks who may have language barriers or ability issues or disability issues. We want to make sure that those folks can still vote privately and independently in their neighborhoods. And, also we have a lot of folks that vote-by-mail normally here in Shasta County. We have about 105,000 registered voters right now and in March, we sent out 83,000 ballots. So, the majority of folks are already voting from home, but there are people who have been very vocal about letting us know they do want to vote in person and we want to serve them but also the 25 or 20,000 folks that have never gotten a ballot in the mail before, we're very concerned that those folks may not realize it’s a ballot, even though we're going to send them a lot of information to help them understand. So much political mail comes in around the election, we just want to make sure that we have every option available for folks who just kind of don't tune into the election until the week before or even on Election Day. We want to make sure those folks are able to vote in person and get a replacement ballot to the one that we mailed them if they have lost track of it.

EN: Are you concerned about people getting COVID-19 at polling places?

CDA: I'm very concerned. In the state of New York election officials have actually passed away because of election related activities filing candidates at the beginning of the crisis in March and April. [None] of us who work in this business want to be responsible for anyone getting sick or, worst case obviously, passing away would be the thing that will definitely keep us up at night and it's keeping us up at night already.

EN: Your office is obviously doing a lot to make sure this goes smoothly. What should voters be doing now to make sure that they're ready in case they're voting by mail for the first time?

CDA: Double check your voter registration status. Make sure that we have the most up-to-date information about where to mail a ballot to you. We will send out and collect that data to send ballots out early in September. So, this is really the last month folks can go in and electronically update their voter registration and be assured they're going to get a ballot in that first mailing. We will do other mailings after that as well, of course, for folks who register to vote at the last minute. But if you voted successfully by mail and March you shouldn't have any problem. They'll send another ballot to the same address. Anybody in California can go to: registertovote.ca.gov and check their voter registration status there as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.