Before the pandemic, California already had one of the highest mail-in voting rates in the country (57.8% in 2016). California was also not the only state with universal VBM during the pandemic. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and some counties in New Mexico and Utah made the switch in the 2016 elections, and the rest of Utah, along with Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, Vermont, the District of Columbia and some counties in Montana and Nebraska had done so in 2020.
Many California counties even had some experience with a universal VBM approach. Three small, rural counties — Alpine, Plumas, and Sierra — had virtually eliminated in-person voting by 2016. Another 15 counties — representing just over half of the state’s registered voters — had held at least one universal VBM election under the state regime. Voter’s Choice Act (VCA) by fall 2020. The VCA was a voting reform passed in 2016; counties that chose to adopt it transitioned to universal VBM and consolidated in-person voting locations in certain prescribed ways (see below).
Although all active registrants in California received a mail-in ballot in the 2020 general election, the state gave counties some leeway to handle in-person voting. Counties adopting the VCA had already replaced the traditional polling station with a smaller number of larger, professionally staffed “voting centers” open to anyone in the county up to 10 days before Election Day. Voters in VCA counties could choose to mail their ballots, drop them in an unmanned drop box, or take them to a voting center.
Each polling center was also electronically connected to the county’s voter registration list, so voters could visit a polling center to register to vote or cast a replacement ballot. In the 2020 general election, these VCA counties, along with the three that had removed virtually all in-person options, mostly continued with the approach they already had in place.
The remaining 40 counties chose one of three state-authorized approaches (see Figure 1):
- Sixteen counties continued with the traditional model: voters were assigned to a small neighborhood polling station, with the minimum number of polling stations dictated by applicable election law.
- Seven counties were consolidated into a smaller number of polling places serving larger geographic areas of the county, but with voters still assigned to a specific neighborhood site.
- Seventeen counties established polling places open for at least four days and allowed any voter to use any location in the county. This approach was very close to the voting center model implemented for the VCA. However, the original VCA counties had more time to implement the reform, had to create a formal plan for the transition, and had been required to conduct more community outreach about the change.
California also required counties to implement a remote voting system, in which election officials emailed their ballot, and voters could mark it online, print it, and then return the ballot. to vote using one of the methods described above. This option, called Remotely Accessible Email Voting (RAVBM), was available to any voter upon request. Together, these changes committed counties to providing some in-person voting options, but with more flexibility than would normally be the case.
Los Angeles was different from other counties
Los Angeles County deserves a special discussion. It is by far the most populous county in the state, with one in four registered voters. It’s also home to a disproportionate share of the state’s voters of color, making what happens there particularly relevant to turnout gaps.
LA County has had an unusually complex relationship with mail-in voting in general and the VCA in particular. LA had the lowest VBM rate in the state before adopting VCA, about 20 points below the state average. The county moved to the VCA in the March 2020 primary, but received special permission to postpone mailing a ballot to each voter. (This exemption itself had a few exceptions, described in more detail below. And like the rest of the state, LA sent out a ballot to all voters in November 2020.)
In short, LA was home to a particularly large in-person voting bloc made up disproportionately of voters of color who faced an unusually complicated transition to the VCA. Because these particular circumstances deserve special attention, we offer more in-depth analysis later in the report.
The experiences of VBM and in-person registrants
The decision to send a ballot to each voter erased any practical distinction between voters who had previously registered to vote permanently by mail (VBM registrants) and those who had declared that they wanted to vote at the polling station (registrants in person). Both would now receive ballots in the mail and have the choice of returning them to an in-person location, mailing them in the postage-paid envelope, dropping them off in a drop box, or voting a replacement ballot at an in-person location.
Still, in-person registrants experienced a bigger shift in their usual method of voting. Some may not have heard that they would receive an absentee ballot, and in many counties their normal polling place for in-person voting has been significantly changed. In contrast, VBM registrants had already received mail-in ballots for previous elections and many also used to return them that way.