Many people dropped off their ballots at the country Registrar of Voters office on Sept. 14. Photo by Chris Stone

California is now the eighth, and by far the largest, U.S. state to make universal distribution of vote-by-mail ballots permanent, a practice that became more widespread during the COVID-19-plagued 2020 election cycle.

The measure requiring mail-in ballots to be routinely sent to every active registered voter from now on was signed into law Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom as the centerpiece of a package of bills aimed at improving the state’s overall election system.

Its enactment in one of the nation’s most heavily Democratic states, and the most populous, contrasted sharply with a wave of new voting requirements and limits passed this year by Republican-controlled legislatures in Texas and the battleground states of Georgia, Florida and Arizona.

Republicans advocating such restrictions have cited a need for tighter election security to stamp out alleged fraud that former President Donald Trump has claimed without evidence cost him the November election. Trump and others in his party have falsely singled out mail-in ballots, in particular, as being somehow vulnerable to tampering.

Democrats, and some Republicans, have countered that those claims are unsubstantiated and that enhancing voter convenience through ballots that can be delivered by mail or at “drop-box” collection sites only expands voter participation.

“When voters get a ballot in the mail, they vote,” Bay Area Assemblymember Marc Berman, chief author of the vote-by-mail bill, said in a statement. “We saw this in the 2020 general election when, in the middle of a global health pandemic, we had the highest voter turnout in California since Harry Truman was president.”

Voters in California still have the option of casting their ballots at polling stations on Election Day if they prefer.

California was one of four states — along with Nevada, Vermont and Utah — to embrace universal mail-in ballots during the 2020 election cycle as an alternative to in-person voting in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Like Utah, California had already begun allowing mail-in voting on a county-by-county basis pre-pandemic but expanded it to all voters in 2020. The practice was extended statewide temporarily through 2021, including the recent gubernatorial recall election.

The bill Newsom signed on Monday makes California the eighth state — along with Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Hawaii — to make that arrangement permanent, according to the election reform advocacy group RepresentUs.

Utah is among a handful of states where Republican-majority legislatures have passed measures making it easier, not harder, to vote.

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