The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

California is now the sixth state in the nation with plans to conduct its November general election by mailing ballots to all voters.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom | Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesIn order of the adoption of the process, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii are the first five.

The other states transitioned to all-mail over the course of years, and in some sense, that’s true for California too—although the final decision was based on COVID-19 and public health concerns. Until last week, California was in a category with Nebraska and North Dakota.

Those three states already allowed counties to decide if they wanted to run elections by mail, so long as they were in alignment with state guidance. (For more on Nebraska, watch last week’s webinar Covid-19: How’s It Changing Elections?, in which Senator Andrew La Grone explains his state’s election system. And note that North Dakota is strongly encouraging all counties to use mail elections during the public health emergency, while so far taking no action on the general election.)

Because 65% of California voters routinely use mail ballots already,  last week’s change isn’t as dramatic as it seems from the headlines. And many states that aren’t going all-mail are also making big changes. Some states that have not relied much on absentee voting in the past are taking steps to increase it. Those changes are being made by election officials who may have more trouble than usual in getting poll workers, and by voters, who are opting to request absentee ballots instead of going to in-person polling places.

As states make these moves, they’re asking NCSL about practicalities, politics and security. NCSL’s webinar on May 13, What to Consider When You’re Expecting More Absentee Voting, will address all three. Here’s a preview:

Practicalities. State law can be adjusted to ensure that increased mail voting can run smoothly. Legislators can determine when mail ballots can be processed (with counting still on Election Day), how absentee ballots can be requested and more. See the Policy Decision Points on NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place webpage.

Politics. Increased absentee/mail voting seems to have all the potential to become the same kind of partisan flashpoint on the state level as voter ID was several years ago.

An April report, "The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote-by-Mail: Evidence from County-Level Roll-Outs," says that in similar counties that have held elections by mail and with traditional polling places, there isn’t a partisan advantage in outcomes. I’m expecting other academics, reporters and politicos will be looking to corroborate or refute this analysis.

Security. Proponents say security starts with clean voter registration rolls, continues through processing (are the signatures on return envelopes matched against signatures on record?) and has a fail-safe option for voters to fix ballot envelopes if they get rejected. Cautionary folks say that establishing a limit on ballot collection helps too.

For more, please join us on any of NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place webinars, starting on Wednesday, May 13. NCSL can help get your questions answered.

Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director of elections and redistricting.

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Posted in: Elections, COVID-19
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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.