The 2020 election year has been a roll call of voting disasters. The Iowa caucus. The New York primary. High-visibility legal battles in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia and many, many others.

Missing from the list? California, which ran a secure and problem-free election, despite a record number of voters and a virtually all-mail balloting.

For putting together an election-system that worked wonderfully well in a time of pandemic and for keeping California out of the national election news, Secretary of State Alex Padilla is my choice for the 2020 Black Bart award.

It’s easy to argue that Padilla had an easy job in a deep-blue state where the result in the presidential race was never in doubt.  But at a time when the coronavirus was ravaging the state and forcing dramatic changes in the way Californians voted, more than 17 million people cast ballots with only a handful of complaints and problems.

A number of important congressional races weren’t decided until weeks after election day. But unlike other states, where candidates and political parties slammed election officials for what they said were unwarranted delays, Californians stayed patient. And when the last votes were counted, the losers conceded, unhappy that they lost, but confident that they got a fair count and an even break.

“California elections officials prioritize the right to vote and election security over rushing the vote count,” Padilla said  in an Oct. 29 statement. “We’d rather get it right than get it fast.”

Padilla is a technocrat, a child of Mexican immigrants who earned his degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even before being elected secretary of state in 2014, he recognized that voting across the country was changing and opted to have the state change with it.

He pushed plans to make it easier to vote by automatically registering eligible residents when they renewed their driver’s license. And his Voters Choice Act, passed by the Legislature in 2016, gave California a huge head start on the foundation for making this year’s virtually all-mail-ballot election work with as little pain as possible for voters and election officials.

When Padilla was elected in 2014, the state had 17.8 million voters, 73% of those eligible. Today, there are 22 million registered voters, 88% of the residents who are eligible to cast ballots. And while there have been bumps along the way (We’re looking at you, DMV), the problems have largely been technical ones which can be fixed.

There have been complaints that Padilla, who’s high on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s list to replace Sen. Kamala Harris when she becomes vice president, is an ambitious politician who is using the secretary of state’s job as a springboard to higher  office

But in politics, that’s a feature, not a bug. The best way for a politician to convince voters that they deserve a top job is to do well in the one they have. Padilla has.

There are other Californians who have been noteworthy in 2020.

In 2004, Harris beat an entrenched incumbent to become San Francisco’s district attorney. She eked out a narrow win to become California’s attorney general in 2010 and then replaced Barbara Boxer in the Senate in 2016. Now she’s set to become vice president on Jan. 20.

Born in Oakland to a mother from India and a father from Jamaica, Harris spent her high school years in Canada, graduated from the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then returned to California to get a law degree from Hastings College and work as a prosecutor in the Bay Area.

Harris’ success story is one that is essentially Californian and should serve as exhibit #1 for those arguing for the continuing importance of immigrants and their children to the country’s future.

Closer to home, Chad Mayes was re-elected to his Inland Empire Assembly district, just as he has been since 2014. There was a difference this year, though, since Mayes, a lifelong Republican, ran as an independent.

“Our two-party system in this country is failing us and I think we spend way too much time on gamesmanship versus working on solutions to make people’s lives better,” he told the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs when he announced he was leaving the Republican Party.

Mayes was the Assembly Republican leader in 2017 when he was forced out of the post after he negotiated a deal to extend California’s cap-and-trade program, which most of the Republicans in the Legislature opposed.

What’s best for California isn’t always what’s best for their political party, which is a dilemma for too many legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike. Mayes picked his conscience over the party and, even more important, convinced the voters to go along.


John Wildermuth is a long time writer on California politics.