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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for California Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: August 19, 2020
Published: August 19, 2020

This is part of the Bren­nan Center’s Toolkits for Activ­ists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Polit­ical Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Admin­is­ter­ing an elec­tion under pandemic condi­tions requires under­tak­ing steps to keep voting access­ible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the prob­lems Covid-19 poses, what prepared­ness meas­ures Cali­for­nia has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some polit­ical context for your advocacy.

Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local offi­cials have a lot of respons­ib­il­ity over elec­tions. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state offi­cials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we high­light some examples of changes that local elec­tions offi­cials can also make with this symbol:🔸

Polit­ical Context

Below is a list of the relev­ant offi­cials and inform­a­tion about the legis­lat­ive session.

Governor: Gavin Newsom (D)

Secret­ary of State: Alex Padilla (D)

Legis­lature: House (D) Senate (D)

Legis­lat­ive Session: The legis­lature is sched­uled to adjourn on Novem­ber 30, 2020. Only the governor can call a special legis­lat­ive session.

Local Elec­tions Offi­cials: In Cali­for­nia, a number of county offi­cials share respons­ib­il­it­ies for admin­is­ter­ing elec­tions. You can look up indi­vidual county offi­cials here.

What Cali­for­nia Has and What’s Needed

Three prior­it­ies. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elec­tions systems for success during a pandemic: regis­tra­tion, mail voting, and in-person voting.


Covid-19 may disrupt the tradi­tional ways Amer­ic­ans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or regis­ter­ing at govern­ment agen­cies. In the crucial weeks before the regis­tra­tion dead­line, postal service disrup­tions may lead many regis­tra­tion forms to arrive at elec­tion offices after the dead­line.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Cali­for­nia Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter regis­tra­tion
  • Elec­tion Day voter regis­tra­tion

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter regis­tra­tion dead­lines based on condi­tions in the state

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previ­ous elec­tions. Allow­ing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Elec­tion Day and decreases the expos­ure risk to Covid-19.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Cali­for­nia Already Has Taken:

  • All voters can vote by mail without an excuse
  • Pre-paid post­age for voting by mail
  • Accepts late-arriv­ing ballots post­marked by Elec­tion Day
  • Provides post-elec­tion notice and cure oppor­tun­ity for defects on absentee-ballot envel­ope, includ­ing signa­ture mismatch or miss­ing signa­tures
  • No notary or witness require­ment for return of mail ballot
  • No ID require­ment to vote by mail
  • Sends vote-by-mail ballots to all voters who have not yet applied

Changes Still Needed:

  • Create an online tool that allows registered voters who did not receive a mail ballot to request one
  • Provide addi­tional drop-off loca­tions for vote-by-mail ballots🔸

In-Person Voting

Even with expan­ded mail voting oppor­tun­ity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disen­fran­chise voters without Inter­net and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accord­ance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Prepar­at­ory Meas­ures Cali­for­nia Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting
  • Vote centers on elec­tion day

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure suffi­cient polling places are open and resourced on Elec­tion Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting loca­tions🔸
  • Extend the dates and times when in-person early voting loca­tions are open🔸
  • Take proper public health precau­tions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold train­ing sessions for polling-place work­ers well in advance of Elec­tion Day, so that elec­tion offi­cials can better anti­cip­ate prob­lems with staff­ing and logist­ics🔸
  • Increase access to curb­side voting at polling loca­tions

Advocacy Focus: Protect­ing Polling Places

No matter how prepared Cali­for­nia is as a matter of policy, elec­tions offi­cials and advoc­ates must stay vigil­ant about ensur­ing safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for every­one all the way through Elec­tion Day. Here are some import­ant things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Cali­for­nia and what rules govern the process:

  • In accord­ance with recent legis­la­tion (SB 423), counties not conduct­ing mail-ballot elec­tions may reduce the number of polling places, but they are required to keep at least one polling place per 10,000 registered voters, to provide three days of early voting, and to provide a certain number of ballot drop-off loca­tions. Counties may seek waivers of these require­ments from the Secret­ary of State, but they must demon­strate that they can still accom­mod­ate in-person voting needs and that there will not be a dispar­ate impact on protec­ted classes of voters.🔸
  • State law requires counties to conduct voter-educa­tion and outreach campaigns noti­fy­ing voters about mail ballots, early voting oppor­tun­it­ies, access­ible voting options, and where and how to remedy any voting related prob­lem.🔸
  • State law encour­ages counties to provide drive-through ballot drop-off or voting loca­tions.🔸
  • State law allows county elec­tion offi­cials to estab­lish satel­lite offices where voters can vote with vote-by-mail ballots.🔸
  • State law allows counties to use state-owned park­ing lots as polling places or vote centers.
  • Counties must publi­cize their plans for hold­ing elec­tions in advance, and are required to encour­age public parti­cip­a­tion in the plan­ning process.🔸

Key Dates for Cali­for­nia Elec­tions

  • Octo­ber 19, 2020: Dead­line for mail-in voter regis­tra­tion forms to be post­marked
  • Octo­ber 31, 2020: Date by which counties subject to the Cali­for­nia Voter’s Choice Act must open vote centers
  • Novem­ber 3, 2020: General Elec­tion Day
  • Novem­ber 20, 2020: Dead­line for ballots post­marked on elec­tion day to be received by county elec­tions office