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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