Capitol Alert

California tried a new voting system. What we can learn from the experiment

When Sacramento County officials announced last week that they still had more than 200,000 additional ballots to process following election night, the number stunned many political observers.

If all of those ballots are valid, voter turnout in Sacramento County would rise above 46 percent – not only a massive improvement over the dismal 2014 cycle, when it fell below 30 percent, but also the highest level for a non-presidential primary in two decades.

The boost happens to coincide with the county's first all-mail election under Senate Bill 450. Passed in response to the record low turnout of 2014 to encourage greater voter participation, that law created a new system in which every registered voter is sent a ballot in the mail. Neighborhood polling places are replaced with regional centers where residents can drop off their ballots or vote in person instead.

So is the voting boom in Sacramento County an omen of good things to come if SB 450 expands statewide? Experts say it's much too early to tell.

"Right now, the signs look like the system contributed to Sacramento's increased turnout," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. He noted that voting was up in Sacramento by more than in other counties.

But results are mixed in another four counties – Madera, Napa, Nevada and San Mateo – that also made the switch to the all-mail system this year.

Based on estimates combining vote counts and unprocessed ballot reports, three appear to show at least modest turnout improvements over 2014. All four counties, however, are tracking to finish at or below voting levels from 2010 and 2006. (That could improve as more ballots arrived late last week.)

Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, said there may be other factors driving turnout in Sacramento: The county had high-profile local races this year for district attorney and sheriff. And outreach about the new process, by elections officials and community groups, in turn probably reminded many voters that there was an election going on.

"We had a lot of mobilizing happening around the election system itself," Romero said.

The effect of SB 450 on turnout likely won't be clear for several election cycles. But Mitchell and Romero said the more important question to ask in this early stage, as changes are being made, is how voters responded to it: Did the new system work smoothly? Did people have a good experience?

Romero plans to poll voters this summer in the five counties that tried the all-mail elections. Mitchell said he will do a demographic and geographic analysis of who voted after the official count is finished.

If inconsistent voters, such as young people and minorities, turned out in high numbers, he said, it could be an indication that automatically receiving a ballot in the mail is a better process for them. On the other hand, if consistent voters did not turn out, "we should probably probe what about this system caused them to not participate."

"Even if it's better, you can't replace what's familiar," Mitchell said.

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NEW FACE: The Bee welcomes Bryan Anderson, who joins the Capitol Bureau today as a political reporter and the new author of the AM Alert. He was born and raised in Burlingame and is a recent graduate of Elon University in North Carolina, majoring in journalism with a minor in political science. Bryan previously freelanced for the Raleigh News & Observer and had a regular podcast on the changing media landscape.

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