The ease of mail-in voting may increase turnout in California’s recall election.

Voting by mail has emerged as a critical factor in the Republican-led recall.

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The ease of mail-in voting may increase turnout in California’s recall election.

Workers sorted through mail-in ballots in San Jose, Calif., last month.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sept. 8, 2021, 8:24 a.m. ET

A temporary change in California’s election rules aimed at protecting voters during the coronavirus pandemic could be instrumental in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to beat back a proposed recall — and could become permanent if the governor signs a bill that state lawmakers passed last week.

Voting by mail has emerged as a critical factor in the Republican-led recall, which political experts say will probably hinge on whether Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, can turn out the state’s enormous base of liberal voters before the polls close on Sept. 14.

Because of the coronavirus, lawmakers ensured that ballots would automatically be mailed to every registered, active voter, turning an already popular option into the default through at least the end of this year.

As a result, political experts tracking returns in the recall are predicting that at least 50 percent of registered voters will cast ballots, roughly double the turnout that would be expected in a special election. Paul Mitchell, a vice president at Political Data Inc., a Sacramento-based supplier of election data, said more than a quarter of the electorate had already voted.

“You cannot overstate how important the mail-in ballot will be in this election,” said David Townsend, a Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one in California, the electoral math is with Mr. Newsom — but only if his voters cast their ballots. Voting by mail gives even indifferent voters a nudge and an opportunity to cast a ballot without much effort.

“Before this, you had to convince a voter to get in a car, drive to a location with no real signage but a flag and go vote on something they might care about or might not,” Mr. Townsend noted. “Now you get a ballot in the mail, make an X by a box, sign it and drop it back in the mailbox. You don’t even have to look for a stamp.”

About two-thirds of California voters cast mail-in ballots in 2018, but in many parts of the state the option required that voters meet an application deadline. As the coronavirus surged in 2020, Mr. Newsom and California’s legislators became concerned that going to the polls might endanger voters and poll workers.

Assemblyman Marc Berman, a Democrat who represents parts of Silicon Valley, said he was particularly alarmed by Wisconsin’s primary election, where voters were required to come to the polls in person as infections were raging.

“There was this footage of people standing for hours risking their health,” Mr. Berman said, “just to exercise their right to vote.”

The bipartisan decision to mail ballots to all 22 million or so of the state’s registered and active voters was “wildly successful,” Mr. Berman said. “Elections officials up and down the state said the election went remarkably smoothly.”

Californians who had not actively voted in recent years did not get ballots mailed to them, and bar codes helped prevent double voting. Studies conducted afterward found few, if any, sustained complaints of voter fraud.

Some 87.5 percent of the electorate used the mail-in ballots to vote in 2020, either mailing them in or dropping them off at drop boxes or polling places. Turnout among registered California voters was nearly 81 percent, said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.

“We had the highest voter turnout since Harry Truman was president,” said State Senator Tom Umberg, an Orange County Democrat who, as chair of his chamber’s committee on elections, sought to extend the system at least through this year.

At the time, he said, the extension was to protect voters in two upcoming local special elections; the recall effort against the governor had so few signatures that it was widely regarded as a long shot.

As former President Donald J. Trump complained with increasing intensity that his presidency had been stolen, California Republicans became less supportive of mail-in ballots, and the extension in California passed on a party-line vote. A bill to make the system permanent is on the governor’s desk after the State Legislature passed it last week, again over Republican objections.

A spokeswoman for the governor said he does not comment on pending legislation. However, lawmakers said the governor was expected to sign the bill.

If it is signed, Mr. Berman said, California will become the sixth state to require active registered voters to be mailed a ballot before each election, along with Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Utah.

Still, experts say that many California voters from across the political spectrum prefer to hand their ballot to a human rather than drop it in the mail.

“Young voters and Latino voters tend to vote in person,” said Luis Sanchez, executive director of Power California, a statewide progressive organizing group focused on young voters. “They want to make sure their vote counts.”

As of Tuesday, 15 percent of voters ages 18 to 34 had returned their ballots, compared with 47 percent of those 65 and older, although the former make up the largest age group, according to Political Data Inc.

Democratic ballots far outnumbered those from Republicans.

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