Less than two weeks before an early California primary, access to voting and election security were the top issues for state elected officials and congressional representatives who met in San Jose Thursday.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla met with congresswomen Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), speaking at the unveiling of San Jose State University’s first-ever voting center with university President Mary Papazian before a town hall focused on election security.
“If you look back at our nation’s history, the right to vote and access to the ballot box have not always gone hand-in-hand,” Padilla said at the new vote center inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. “California believes not just in the fundamental right to vote, but yet we can maintain the security and integrity of our elections while doing more and more and more to increase access to the ballot for all eligible citizens.”
Padilla also visited Notre Dame High School earlier Thursday to encourage high school students to pre-register to vote. His state agency has also overseen automatically registering people obtaining driver licenses, among other measures intended to increase voter turnout. The 2018 election saw the highest voter turnout during a midterm in California since 1982, according to Padilla. He predicted 2020 turnout surpassing that.
The library voting center — one of more than 110 to open in Santa Clara County by the March 3 primary — will allow students and community members to cast ballots. State Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) last year authored legislation to add college campuses when considering voting centers.
“It is imperative that we continue to empower and engage young people, which will in turn decrease the disproportional representation in voter turnout and move us toward a more active democracy,” he said in a statement.
For the first time this year, Santa Clara County voters can cast a ballot at any of the vote centers — instead of assigned polling places — and all voters will receive a vote-by-mail ballot, changes that were prompted by the Voter’s Choice Act. Some of the vote centers will open as early as 10 days before the election.
Padilla said more than 15 million ballots have already been mailed to California voters for the earlier primary, including more than 940,000 in Santa Clara County, more than the combined populations of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — all early primary states. California now also has same-day voter registration ahead of the March primary, which was moved from June.
After cutting the ribbon on the new voting center, officials headed to the nearby Hammer Theatre to discuss election security. The daylong events came as 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have made election security an issue after American intelligence officials determined Russian agents meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections.
“This is probably the most consequential election of my lifetime,” Lofgren said during the town hall. “And I’m hoping the citizens of this nation will take things into their own hands, and grab the future for our democracy.”
Both congresswomen pointed to legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House that has stalled in the Senate, which has a Republican majority.
These included House Resolution 1 — an expansive bill authored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Baltimore) that has language for campaign ethics and voter registration reforms, but also for presidents and vice presidents to submit 10 years of tax returns — and Lofgren’s Securing America’s Federal Elections, or SAFE Act, to boost election security through grant programs. Her legislation also calls for paper ballots, which Padilla touted as a surefire way to improve the election process.
The officials were also asked by Papazian, the town hall moderator, about propaganda and misinformation campaigns, which were used by Russian agents on social media in 2016.
Eshoo called out social media companies, specifically Facebook, for its responsibility allowing the spread of misinformation online. In a 2018 House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Eshoo grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his company’s role in spreading false statements. The representatives also laid blame on the Republican-led Federal Elections Commission for not enforcing election laws.
I’m reporting for @SJSpotlight on the city’s new voting center inside the Martin Luther King Jr. Library at @SJSU. CA Sec. Of State @AlexPadilla4CA is here with SJSU @PrezPapazian along with @RepAnnaEshoo and @RepZoeLofgren. pic.twitter.com/jVjBsTOWLE
— Eduardo Cuevas (@eduardomcuevas) February 20, 2020
“I think every American company owes something to America,” Eshoo said. “When anyone allows their platform to be used to damage our democracy, we need to do something about it.”
While cautioning about the spread of fear with election meddling, Padilla outlined processes to ensure secure elections. Because the U.S. election system is decentralized, California requires paper ballots, meaning even devices used to place votes ultimately print out the ballots. Officials also conduct post-election audits to ensure integrity.
Padilla said his office now has funding for processes to report misinformation about voting on social media.
President Donald Trump’s impeachment also emerged as a subject during the discussion Thursday. Papazian asked about the perceived ineffectiveness of Congress to protect the country from bad actors, and how it impacts election security. Lofgren, a House impeachment manager during Trump’s Senate trial, argued Trump’s abuse of power in office has eroded institutions.
“In my view, the current president has given a little stress test to democracy and we’ve learned some lessons here,” she said, to which Eshoo — sitting alongside Lofgren — responded, “It’s not little. It’s giant. It’s huge.”