Congress Should Learn From the Golden State

The Hollywood Hills featuring Hollywood Sign-styled letters that spell "LOOK HERE" surrounded by various people voting by mail, voting by drop box, and a woman holding a sign that says "VOTE CALIFORNIA"

In September 2021, California held the first major statewide election since the November 2020 general election and its attendant misinformation, vitriol and violence. The election — in which voters were asked whether or not to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom and replace him with one of the thirty-odd candidates — was my first as California’s newly appointed secretary of state. 

Amidst countless ongoing (and almost entirely unsuccessful) lawsuits and phony audits in states across the country — not to mention a constant drumbeat of conspiracy theories about voter fraud from the right-wing media — my team and I prepared for the election in America’s largest state, home to more than 22 million registered voters. From the get-go, we knew we were under a microscope. We wanted to make every effort to demonstrate to voters that our electoral process was fair, transparent and accurate; in an era of widespread mistrust in our election systems, we had an opportunity to instill confidence. 

As public debate intensified around the recall, candidates to replace Governor Newsom were falsely alleging fraud in the election days before it was even over, broadcasting intentions to take legal action against me and other election officials should they not prevail.

Days later, the recall was rejected by voters by the exact same margin that Newsom had prevailed by less than three years earlier in an exercise that cost taxpayers over $300 million. In the end, Californians accepted the results of a free, transparent, secure and fair election.

I am lucky to be the chief elections officer for a state whose governor and legislature support equal access to the ballot. Every registered voter in California received a mail-in ballot in September’s recall election as they had the previous November, no application or reason required. Despite mailing over 22 million ballots, there were no major errors regarding where, or to whom, the ballots were sent. Due to its success, California will now permanently mail voters ballots ahead of every election.

We gave voters multiple options for casting their vote. If they chose to use the mail-in ballot, as we urged them to do, they could return it via the mail, one of thousands of secure drop boxes or in person at a polling place. And if they wished to cast their vote the old-fashioned way, they could do so early or on Election Day. Information on how to do all of these things was widely available. 

On Election Day, there were no major problems with voting machines, no long lines outside of any polling location, no lost troves of ballots. Elections officials in my office and in all 58 counties oversaw a smooth, secure election. And in the end, more people voted in this special, oddly timed election than in the regularly scheduled midterm election of 2018. 

This isn’t an accident. Yes, credit is due to the civic spirit of California and the hard work of election officials, but the laws on the books matter. While we always have room to improve — I authored legislation when I was a member of the State Assembly to extend the vote to individuals who were formerly incarcerated and now on parole, and continue that work today — California has laws on the books that provide equal access to the ballot and protects our most sacred American right. 

Many other states — seemingly more and more by the day — do not. Over the course of last year, we have seen noxious legislation signed into law in states across the country reinstating Jim Crow-era tactics to surgically restrict the right to vote especially among communities of color. At this point, the laundry list is well known: partisan “poll watchers” who are able to linger and intimidate voters at polling locations; the barring of water and snacks for people waiting in line to vote; voters kicked off of the rolls if they miss just two elections.

The states can’t do it alone. We need the federal government to step in. The voting rights of hundreds of millions of Americans are at stake.

Over the years, multiple voting rights bills have died in the United States Senate, thanks to the arcane practice of the filibuster. In 2021 alone, three good bills have been stopped in their tracks; the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act would have all made considerable progress to protect the right to vote in America. 

But none of these bills to curb voter suppression, simplify voter registration, or strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and none have cleared the 60-vote threshold necessary for non-budget bills in the Senate. Not even close. 

For the sake of the nation, we must end the legislative filibuster in the Senate across the board. An unwritten Senate practice, born out of a mistake by Aaron Burr, has metastasized to obstruct progress on countless important issues. Leaders in the Senate have proposed reforms that, while falling short of total abolishment of the filibuster, would nonetheless make passing voting legislation possible – and President Biden has signaled his support for an exception to the filibuster rules for voting rights legislation. Sen. Manchin (D-W.Va) has proposed reinstating the “talking” filibuster wherein a senator would have to occupy the floor and constantly talk, as used to be the norm; President Biden has previously expressed that he would be open to returning to the “talking” filibuster for voting rights legislation specifically. 

I’m heartened that leaders are discussing options, but we’re running out of time. Tomorrow, Jan. 6, is the one-year anniversary of the most explicit, concrete and violent attempt to thwart American democracy in recent memory. In the last year, the Capitol insurrection proved to be an indicator of where right-wing operatives were headed — undermining democracy via legislation, rather than taking up arms. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the one-year anniversary a moment for action. We are now in a crucial election year, and we’re running out of time.

As the chief elections officer of the state of California, as a lifelong advocate of voting rights and as a daughter of the Jim Crow South whose parents fought tooth and nail for their right to vote, I’m calling on Democratic leaders in the White House and Capitol Hill to act boldly and act now on behalf of our most sacred American value. 


Dr. Shirley N. Weber is the California Secretary of State. She is the state’s first Black Secretary of State.