More than 1 million California voters have already returned their ballots

Marie Tae McDermott, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 17 2020 12:48 AM | Updated as of Oct 17 2020 03:21 AM

A voter fills out a ballot at an early voting center in tents outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Oct. 14, 2020. Jim Wilson, The New York Times

Less than two weeks since mail-in ballots were sent to every registered voter in California, officials announced this week that more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots had already been returned.

That means roughly 7% of the 21 million ballots that were sent out earlier this month have been processed. For perspective, there were just 150,000 returned ballots at the same point in time during the 2016 presidential election.

This is surely a record, but this is a year for unprecedented changes.

“We have more vote-by-mail ballots out there than we ever have,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. “That being said, we are seeing huge numbers that don’t seem to be explained by simply the amount of additional vote-by-mail ballots that are out there.”

Romero attributes the flood of ballots to a few factors. For one, she surveyed eligible voters in California and found that 14% of respondents were concerned about becoming infected with the coronavirus if they were to vote in person at a polling site. For African Americans, that number was twice as high.

In addition, President Donald Trump’s claims about voter fraud leading up to the elections and worries about Postal Service delays might have spurred people to cast their ballots as soon as possible. That would leave plenty of time for ballots to make it through the mail and for officials to review ballots for discrepancies.

Romero also said that many people were eager to vote and wanted to make a personal statement by voting right away. “This has been an election that many people have waited for,” she said.

Right now, there is no indication of whether the return numbers will continue to accrue at a high pace or if they will tail away after an early rush.

According to figures released by the California Secretary of State’s office, almost twice as many people have returned ballots by mail than by drop box. Republican Party members and state officials have clashed over illegal drop boxes this week. After state leaders sent a cease-and-desist order to remove unauthorized boxes, Republicans doubled down on their efforts to harvest ballots, setting up a potential legal battle.

Although the mail-in ballot return numbers are big, officials should still brace themselves for busy in-person voting, Romero said. Large numbers of people are expected to vote in person this year, including people with language assistance needs or voters who require same-day registration. Voters might also decide to wait to drop off their ballot at polling locations so it can be looked over by a poll worker, Romero said.

But no matter what, voting is happening, and that’s good news.

“It’s great for our democracy to see this kind of early, early turnout,” she said.