As a transplant living in California, I’m pretty familiar with the electoral system here. And the things I’ve been hearing Republicans say on the subject are outrageous, as I explained at New York.
Some Republicans were so busy on the evening of November 6 spinning a poor midterm showing into a vindication of their party and president that they apparently missed the fact that the election wasn’t quite over. And later on, they professed mystification at the final results. I say “professed” because it’s hard to believe Speaker Paul Ryan is as stupid as he sounds here:
“The California election system ‘just defies logic to me,’ Ryan said during a Washington Post event.
“‘We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every California race….’
“’In Wisconsin, we knew the next day. Scott Walker, my friend, I was sad to see him lose, but we accepted the results on Wednesday,’ Ryan said. In California, ‘their system is bizarre; I still don’t completely understand it. There are a lot of races there we should have won.’”
The slow count from California should not have come as a surprise: It happened in the June 5 primary as well, and in the 2016 primary and general election. And it was in part the product of a 2015 change in state election laws allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within three days to count. Since the share of Californians voting by mail has been going up regularly in recent elections, we’re talking about a lot of votes. Since mail ballots have to go through signature verification (just like in-person ballots go through at polling places), it takes a while to count them. There’s nothing new or nefarious about either of these practices. Voting by mail (or as the practice’s proponents prefer to call it, “voting from home”) is now quasi-universal in three states: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. And much longer than California, Washington has for years allowed ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, leading to slow counts in that state as well. A Washington election official had an interesting reaction when asked back in 2012 about the consequences of a slow count:
“‘News reporters are the only people who complain about the vote-counting delay,’ said [Katie] Blinn, adding that Washington’s system is relatively inexpensive, accurate and encourages turnout.”
Apparently Speakers of the House also complain now.
While a spokesman for Ryan hastened to say he didn’t intend to claim a election fraud, his complaints echoed those of a California member of the Republican National Committee, Shawn Steel, who suggested just that in an op-ed for the Washington Times.
Citing Republican congressional candidate Young Kim’s 14-point lead at one point on the evening of November 6, Steel asks:
“How does a 14-point Republican lead disappear? Merciless and unsparing, California Democrats have systematically undermined California’s already-weak voter protection laws to guarantee permanent one-party rule.”
To those unfamiliar with GOP rhetoric, I should explain that “voter protection laws” means laws making it as hard as possible to vote. Consider Steel’s interpretation of the rule allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day:
“In California, voting doesn’t stop on Election Day. Absentee ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day, with ballots counted that arrive up to three days late. If ballots are sent to the wrong county, the ballot is valid for an additional four days….That means you literally have seven days after an election where a county could still be receiving legitimate ballots.”
Again, that’s been the practice in Washington for years, without complaint (other than from reporters). And when you think about it, why should we respect ballots cast on Election Day more than those filled out on or before Election Day that are duly placed in the mail, at their own expense? Should such voters have to guess how long it will take the postal service to deliver their ballots? This complaint only makes sense to someone who wants to make voting inconvenient, and hence rarer. Steel goes on to suggest that voting by mail is itself nefarious:
“In just four years, the number of absentee ballots distributed in California has increased by 44 percent. ‘Nearly 13 million voters have received a ballot in the mail, compared to just 9 million in the last gubernatorial election in 2014,’ notes Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.”
First of all, these aren’t “absentee ballots.” As is the case in a growing number of states, voting by mail is considered normal, not something you have to construct an excuse to do. And of course the number is rising: In California you can register as a “voter by mail” and you will receive mail ballots automatically so long as you keep voting. Steel points to an experiment that allowed a handful of counties this year to mail ballots to all registered voters as though that somehow encourages fraud. Again, that is the universal practice in voting-by-mail states; what’s the beef? You can vote by mail, vote in person, or not vote at all. Nothing has changed.
Here’s another bogus complaint from Steel, about what he calls, without a shred of evidence, “motor voter fraud:”
“Every person in California that interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles is automatically registered to vote. This has predictably led to tens of thousands cases of voter registration problems. The state’s Motor Voter program has come under fire for double registering as many as 77,000 people and registering as many as 1,500 ineligible voters. The state’s bipartisan oversight agency expressed concerns about ‘serious problems with ensuring that the New Motor Voter Program works as intended and promised.'”
This is called “automatic voter registration” and 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) have similar systems. California’s just went into effect this last April, and those 1,500 ineligible voters (who were duly purged from the rolls) were out of the 1.4 million enrolled by September, when the errors were discovered and cured.
One more bogus complaint that you can hear other Republicans make involves something Steel confusedly calls “conditional voting”:
“California has effectively adopted same-day voter registration with the introduction of ‘conditional voting.’ This election cycle, voters who missed the 15-day voter registration deadline could request to cast a conditional ballot.”
Same-day voter registration is in effect in 17 states (plus D.C.). And “provisional ballots” have been in effect nationwide since the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. It’s actually a means for ensuring against voter fraud, since provisional votes are not counted until their validity can be established. Yes, provisional ballots slow down vote counts, but the alternative — giving voters the benefit of the doubt and counting them all — isn’t likely going to be endorsed by Republicans….
This brouhaha might not matter if it did not feed the same myths of voter fraud that led Donald Trump to claim without a hint of evidence after the 2016 elections that “millions” of illegal votes had been cast for Hillary Clinton in California, robbing him of a popular-vote plurality nationally. Going into 2020, this sort of loose talk needs to be debunked wherever possible, unless we want to risk the possibility of a GOP election defeat that is not simply questioned but denied.