October 5, 2020 - From the October, 2020 issue

Alex Padilla, CA Secretary of State, Assures Election Safety & Integrity

One month before the 2020 General Election, just days before all registered voters in California receive their vote-by-mail ballots—and following alarming remarks from the President instigating voter harassment and intimidation at the polls—TPR interviews California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, who reminds readers of the protections enshrined in California’s Voter Bill of Rights and highlights the measures taken—and resources allocated—by the state and counties to protect the integrity of the November election facing the unprecedented challenges of 2020. 

Alex Padilla

"I never would have imagined being in a Twitter war with the President of the United States over falsehoods, misleading comments, and flat-out lies about the integrity of our elections and the ability of eligible voters to register vote and vote safely. But it's the times we're living in where that's an added part of the job to constantly correct the record and give voters the information they need to be able to participate in their democracy.”—Alex Padilla

Mr. Secretary, we speak to you exactly one month before the national election, the day following the first presidential debate and a couple days before ballots go out on October 5 to all registered voters in California. Could you elaborate on who’s eligible to vote and who will be receiving a ballot in the coming days in California?

I very much appreciate the question because, sadly, vote-by-mail has come under attack in 2020, with a lot of false information and a lot of false claims about vote-by-mail. So, let's be clear.

A vote-by-mail ballot will be sent automatically to every active registered voter in the state of California in advance of the November election. And yes, there's more than 21 million voters—registration is at an all-time high, and the registration rate of eligible voters is the highest that it's been in decades. So, I think that bodes well for the strength and resiliency of our democracy, at this point.

If a voter does not receive their ballot in the mail in the coming days, what is their recourse?

As much as we are emphasizing vote-by-mail for anybody who can, and is willing and able, this is not an all vote-by-mail election. First, any voter in California can go to Vote.CA.gov for all the election resources and information they need, including, Where’s My Ballot. If you click, you can sign up to receive automated alerts on the status of your ballot through the postal delivery process. If you do it soon, you'll get the alert when the county mails your ballot, so you know when to start checking that mailbox!  You can also choose to get alerts along the way by email, text message, or phone call, including a confirmation on the back end of when the county receives your ballot and when your ballot is counted. That transparency is huge, both for accountability, but also public confidence in vote-by-mail.

If you're somebody who's already registered to vote, it's a good idea to verify your registration status in advance. For people who think they registered a long time ago and don't have to worry about it, ot's always a good idea to verify your registration status to make sure, for example, that your address is current.

If you've moved and haven't re-registered with your new address, we don't want to run the risk of sending your ballot to the wrong address. We can prevent some of that if folks verify their registration status at Vote.CA.gov. But, if after doing all that, you’re still sitting there, mid-October and haven't received your ballot, you can contact the county, and they can look into it for you.

And as the ultimate fallback option, you can still show up at an in-person voting location, either on or before Election Day, and vote that way. 

What are the options for voters to return their marked-up ballots?

So, again, every active registered voter will receive their ballot in the mail for this November's election and have multiple options for how to return it. I still think mailing it back is a reliable way to vote, and California is so committed, we cover the return postage, so you don't even need to look for stamps to return your ballot by mail. The only thing to keep in mind is that your ballot must be postmarked on or before Election Day. It can arrive up to 17 days after the election and still be counted, but it must be postmarked on or before November 3, and obviously, sooner rather than later is better.

If you prefer, voters can deliver their ballot to any ballot drop-box in the county convenient to them in the weeks leading up to the election. Or, as many people do, voters can receive their ballot in the mail, fill it out at their leisure, and then drop it off in person at any in-person voting location during the early voting period or on election day itself.

Another reminder for returning those ballots— regardless of how you return it, you must return your ballot in the official envelope and sign the outside of the envelope in the designated space. That signature is critical for the signature verification process, one of the important safeguards to protect the integrity of vote-by-mail. 

On that signature verification issue, for many older voters, or voters who for some reason or another can't remember how they signed their name upon registering, how do they ascertain whether they signed their ballots correctly for voting purposes? 

Here's the good news, every election there are a lot of ballots that get set aside because either the voter forgot to sign the envelope, or their signatures don't match. California law now requires counties to contact the voter to cure any signature issue, so that we can make sure every valid vote is counted.

If you go to Vote.CA.gov, you can look up your voter status. In that record, it will show you in recent elections if you voted provisionally. Or, if you voted by mail, whether, indeed, your ballot was received and counted, and if not, why not? If your voter status tells you there's a signature issue, you might have to update your registration with a more-up-to-date signature. But for most people, it turns out just fine. Just be on the lookout; if the county’s trying to reach you in the days after the election, you want to take that phone call.

This past week the South Carolina's GOP asked the US Supreme Court to restore the ballot witness rule, and in Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislature is proposing an “Integrity Commission” with subpoena powers to oversee the counting of ballots.  Could you, as California’s Secretary of State, address the issue of integrity of mail ballot elections; and also, the legal challenges that are already occurring, or are likely to occur, with respect to the counting and certifying of mail ballots this November?  

For better and for worse, the United States Constitution delegates authority over elections to the states. We don't have one centralized federal administration of elections. From an election security standpoint, that's an advantage because we're so decentralized, it makes the infrastructure of our election a little bit more resilient to threats and attacks.

But when it comes to administration of elections, we do have different rules in each state. Some states, like California, are secure and work hard to make it easier for eligible people to register to vote, but in other states, that's not exactly the case. With the COVID-19 pandemic, so many states are really increasing their vote-by-mail significantly for the first time. It's brought to light all the important details about the vote-by-mail process: who's eligible, what are the timetables for ballots going out, what are the deadlines for ballots coming back, and witness or even notarization requirements in some states are being challenged because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data tells us, and the experience tells us, that in California, vote-by-mail is indeed very secure—not just convenient for voters, but very secure. The witness requirement is not really necessary; there are other safeguards in place to protect the integrity of vote-by-mail. And so the states that still have it, and are insisting on keeping it, sadly, I think are unnecessarily making it harder for people to vote and protect their health during this COVID- 19 pandemic. 

Surely, Mr. Secretary, you watched the first presidential debate this past week and are aware that the President suggested to “his” people that they come to the polls to assure a “proper” count. Given the pandemic and given the challenges of adding poll workers and security at every location for those who wish to vote in person, are you comfortable that the process you are responsible for can withstand the challenges the President is encouraging? 

I do believe we will be okay this November, but comments from the President and others are certainly not making our job any easier. One of the things that we'll be working hard to remind voters in California about is the Voter’s Bill of Rights. The law has a lot of simple things, like, if you're 18 years or older and a citizen United States, you have the right to register to vote. You have the right to cast a provisional ballot if there's any issue when you show up to vote in person. If you're in line by 8:00 pm, you have the right to stay in that line and cast your ballot as long as it takes the election workers to assist you, for example.

But included in the Voter Bill of Rights is your ability to cast your ballot free of any intimidation or harassment. Observing the polls is allowed in California, but the rights of voters and the respect for the voting environment—that is, no electioneering within the proximity of a polling location—is codified in state law. Election observation is one thing, harassment of voters is clearly against the law in California. And yes, we have protocols, in partnership with local officials, to make sure we maintain that.


Here in California, in November of 1988 in Orange County, there was a case involving 20 uniformed security officers hired by the local Republican Party to spread across Santa Ana to assist republican Curt Pringle in his election contest.  Is there an enforcement lesson to be learned from that 1988 case for the 2020 election this November? 

For California purposes, yes, there was a flurry of legislation after that 1988 election to protect the sanctity of the polling place—not just for poll workers, but more importantly for voters as well. If we go back to some of the threats and rhetoric from President Trump, like threatening to dispatch law enforcement officials to polling locations; that's not allowed in the State of California and violates state law. We have, not just working relationships, but protocols to guard against that in the state.

Separate and apart from law enforcement, Trump is clearly trying to egg on aggressive poll watchers, vigilante-style. That, too, is not allowed in the state of California. Voters have the right to cast their ballot free of harassment and intimidation. State and local elections officials work with public safety counterparts to make sure we maintain the appropriate environment around elections.

Regarding the integrity of the upcoming election, does California have the resources post-November 3rd to protect the sanctity of the results of the California election?

We believe we do. Every election, it's not just the planning and logistics involved with securing polling locations, poll-workers and printing sufficient valid voter information guides, we work in partnership with other state departments and agencies including the attorney general’s office, and ultimately elections are administered at the county level.  Each county elections office – each Registrar of Voters – works with their county government counterparts to ensure proper logistics, administration, and safety of voters throughout the process.

Mr. Secretary, one more question about the integrity of the election,  given the pandemic, the raging fires, and mounting state and local budget deficits, are you concerned that all the counties of California have the wherewithal to carry out their respective responsibility on November 3rd and the complete counting of ballots?

It's a valid question, but again, I think we're going to be okay. I give a lot of credit to the legislature and the governor for supporting elections through the budget in recent years. We've worked, utilizing state resources, to make sure every county has been able to upgrade or replace older voting systems to new voting systems that meet higher security standards. We have the most secure elections infrastructure of any state in the nation.

There have also been a couple of modest federal appropriations that – coupled with the state appropriations – allowed us to work with counties to prepare for this November's election. Again, we're not just printing ballots and a sufficient number of envelopes, we’ve had to partner with counties to secure larger safer, more strategic voting locations, right? No more voting in a retirement home or in a residential garage. We have facilities like college and university campuses, Dodger Stadium, and the Staples Center that will serve as voting locations. So, if there's been an incremental cost incurred, we have the resources to work with.

Another significant expense that we don't typically think of when it comes to elections is PPE. For anybody who votes in person this November, we're going to remind them to bring their masks, but we'll have extras on hand for anybody who might have forgotten. We'll have plenty of a hand sanitizer for poll workers and voters alike.  We've worked together to procure enough PPE for poll workers to keep them and voters safe throughout the various days of in-person voting. Again, between modest federal appropriations and some significant state appropriations, we do believe every county has the resources they need to be ready for November.

Just to go one more step above and beyond, in a tough 2020-2021 budget cycle, the legislature and the governor, nonetheless, appropriated an additional $35 million for us to conduct a voter education campaign. There are proper changes to how we're administering the November election – the increase in vote-by-mail and changes to the in-person voting experience – so, it's only helpful for voters if voters are aware of their options to vote and how to vote safely. Voter education is even more important than it has been in prior elections, but the state has seen to it that we have the resources for that.

Turning to the Census, which is also under your office’s purview, does California have the ability to ensure an accurate census count?

I think it's mixed news at this point.  Technically, the census is administered by the federal government – by the Census Bureau within the US Department of Commerce. The formal role that I play is chair of the California Complete Count Committee, where we are overseeing the expenditure of $187 million that the legislature, Governor Brown, and Governor Newsom combined committed to outreach and assistance for Californians to participate in the Census.

 As of right now, we are at just above a 69 percent response rate, which is about 2.5 points ahead of the national average, so that's good news. It's ahead of what the self-response rate was 10 years ago, so that's good news too. But that also means more than 30 percent of California households have not responded to the census, which is a lot of political power and, certainly, a lot of federal funding that we risk leaving on the table if we don't increase that number here in the last stretch of the self-response period.

 To be honest, I am wary of the Census Bureau's ability to do the next step of adjusting the numbers to get closer to 100 percent through the administrative adjustments that they do in every census. Because of the delays of COVID-19 and the impacts on timelines and deadlines for finalizing the Census count and reporting to Congress and the administration, before we know it, we're into the redistricting process and the 2022 election cycle. I do have concerns as to whether there's the time to deliver the quality data needed for policymaking and for redistricting.

While most people know that elections have consequences, many are less aware of Census’ importance. Could you address the latter?

Just a reminder that the census isn't done for fun; it's not an option. The United States Constitution requires a national population count every 10 years. The state's population count determines a couple of very critical things. If most people know anything about the Census, they know it determines federal funding for each community. Whether it's infrastructure, transportation, health care, education, affordable housing, and more, those federal funds are distributed on a per capita basis.

But from a political standpoint, it's what drives the reapportionment process. Today there are 53 representatives from the State of California in the House of Representatives because that's our proportional representation is based on our percentage of the national population. Will it stay 53 for the next 10 years? Will it go up? Will it go down? It depends on the quality of our population count as a state and as a nation. Political representation, which is huge, hangs in the balance.

By extension, it impacts the redistricting process. Every 10 years after the census is complete, the boundaries are adjusted for congressional districts, legislative districts, county supervisorial districts, local city council and school board districts, et cetera, to try to protect one person, one vote. We have to balance out the populations across districts. It’s really hard to draw up fair districts if you don't have reliable census data. That population data is critical. So, even voting rights you can say, by extension, depend on a quality count in the Census.

Lastly, as someone who had a stellar education – even a Coro fellowship – plus, public service in both in the state Assembly and state Senate, what has most surprised you since assuming the office of Secretary of State?

Wow, there's so much. Where do we begin? When I ran for Secretary of State, I talked to a lot of friends and supporters about what we could do to increase voter registration rates and participation rates. As we all, supposedly, learned high school government class, our democracy works best when as many eligible people participate, so we had work to do to create a much more inclusive democracy in California.

 A couple of things that I would not have anticipated are, number one, having liaisons to the Department of Homeland Security on my speed dial. Since 2016, we've all realized why and how that's important to protect the integrity of our free and fair elections. Maybe, in a stretch, I could have envisioned that, but I never would have imagined being in a Twitter war with the President of the United States over falsehoods, misleading comments, and flat-out lies about the integrity of our elections and the ability of eligible voters to register vote and vote safely. But it's the times we're living in where that's an added part of the job to constantly correct the record and give voters the information they need to be able to participate in their democracy.


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