Setting up a potential legal showdown over California's presidential election, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the state will send every voter a mail-in ballot for the November contest, a move criticized by national Republicans as a pathway to possible large-scale abuse.
With the state still under stay-at-home orders and facing a future of unknowns from the coronavirus outbreak, the Democratic governor said sending postage-paid ballots to every registered voter was the best solution to addressing the anxiety felt by many people about gathering in large groups that are breeding grounds for the virus.
In-person voting places will remain available for those who might need them. But it wasn't immediately clear how many would be available or where they would be located.
Newsom's decision was praised by Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who said there is "no safer ... way to exercise your right to vote than from the safety and convenience of your own home."
But the prospect of mailing more than 20 million ballots to voters was already raising the possibility of a courtroom fight: The Republican National Committee said its reviewing its "legal options to ensure the integrity of the election."
President Donald Trump has been among the skeptics and has said that "a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting."
Jessica Millan Patterson, who heads the California Republican Party, pointed to problems with voting rolls and the so-called "motor voter" program to register new voters.
A state audit last year identified technical difficulties that led to hundreds of thousands of discrepancies in voter registrations sent to the Secretary of State. None of the discrepancies in roughly 3 million voter records reviewed by auditors resulted in major voter registration errors, such as allowing someone to vote who should not have been allowed to cast a ballot. But but the audit only examined a set of registrations between April and September 2018 and did not rule out the possibility of major errors in other registrations.
"To mail out millions of ballots to voter rolls have proven to contain alarming errors throughout the state is not a task that these Democrats can adequately manage or safely execute," she said in a statement.
Historically, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting. In the state's March primary, more than 75% of California voters received a vote-by-mail ballot.
With the move to statewide mail-in ballots, California hopes to avoid the problems that plagued last month's Wisconsin presidential primary, where thousands of voters without protective gear were forced to wait for hours in long lines, while thousands more stayed home to avoid the potential health risks.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Newsom said in a statement that mail-in ballots "aren't a perfect solution for every person" and he hoped election officials and health experts would continue to "create safer in-person opportunities for Californians who aren't able to vote by mail."