In a last-minute bill moving through the Legislature, Democratic lawmakers are seeking to expand the number of mail ballots counted in elections by extending the deadline for submitting them.
The bill would require counties to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and arrive at registrars' offices no later than three days after the close of polls. Current law requires ballots to arrive no later than the poll closing on Election Day to be counted.
Rhys Williams, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said Assembly Bill 1466 is necessary because of recent United States Postal Service closures of distribution centers. He pointed to such shutdowns in Modesto, Pasadena and Burlingame.
Democrats have drafted the bill as budget trailer legislation, which allows it to take effect before November on a majority vote of the Legislature rather than the two-thirds supermajority normally required for urgency matters. Williams said AB 1466 is being cast as a budget proposal because it has additional costs for registrars and educating voters.
"The bill is to make sure that every Californian's vote gets counted and that people aren't disenfranchised because of federal closures to post office processing centers across the state," Williams said.
But critics of the Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Proposition 30, are suspicious. Democrats already passed budget trailer legislation in June on a majority vote that helped Brown's measure leapfrog others to appear first on the November ballot. At the time, Democrats also gave good-government reasons, explaining that the change prioritized amendments to the state constitution over less permanent changes to statutes.
"Given what this Legislature has done manipulating the ballot process, I think any Eleventh Hour change in the manner in which the November election will be administered is immediately suspect," said Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who opposes Proposition 30 and filed a lawsuit challenging the previous legislative use of majority-vote budget powers.
Republicans tend to vote by mail earlier, Democrats vote at the same rate throughout the submission period, while independents turn in ballots at a higher rate in the closing days, according to mail-ballot data provided by Paul Mitchell, vice president with Political Data Inc. The data also shows that young voters and Latinos submit ballots at higher rates in the final week.
Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation applauded the change, saying that each election leaves piles of ballots that go uncounted because they arrived too late.
"It's very heartbreaking," Alexander said. "These are people who had every intention of voting and think mistakenly it counts if postmarked by Election Day."
County election officials said they were concerned with how the law would describe a valid postmark. In some cases, USPS does not stamp a postmark or does so illegibly, said Deborah Seiler, registrar of voters in San Diego County. She said many last-minute mail voters now feel compelled to drop off ballots because there is no postmark law.
"My overarching concern is we will disenfranchise even more voters if they think they don't have to drop them off at the polls and can just have it postmarked," Seiler said. "If the postmark is illegible or missing, it won't count."
Seiler said her office already does an Election Day sweep of USPS distribution centers to capture lingering ballots that otherwise would not be delivered by the deadline.
Twelve other states and the District of Columbia give voters a postmark deadline and a post-Election Day grace period for collection, according to the absentee voter website Long Distance Voter.
Post updated at 12:30 p.m. with additional information and interviews.