California officials ponder all-mail voting

Early-morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot Nov. 4 at a polling station in Sacramento’s Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep School before taking her son Jacob, 7, to school.
Early-morning voter Pamela Morgan casts her ballot Nov. 4 at a polling station in Sacramento’s Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep School before taking her son Jacob, 7, to school. lsterling@sacbee.com

When all the ballots are finally tallied from last week’s election, the proportion of Californians voting by mail is expected to break the record set in 2012, the first time more than half of the state’s electorate voted absentee.

The uptick has more Californians pushing for the state to go all the way and ditch traditional polling places. Washington, Colorado and Oregon require all of their elections to be run entirely by mail, and at least 19 others permit some of their elections to be all mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

County elections officials have touted the potential increase in voter interest and significant savings from avoiding the task of recruiting and training polling place workers. And some believe an all-mail system could even help speed up and avoid some overtime ballot-counting.

“I say, ‘yes, please,’” said Jill LaVine, the registrar of voters in Sacramento County. “I would love to go all vote-by-mail.”

LaVine compared overseeing the current system to running two elections at the same time – one via the Postal Service and another at polling places. The latter process is so resource-heavy that her office essentially “shuts down” counting absentee votes the Friday before an election, leaving a huge pile of ballots to count in the days and weeks afterward, LaVine said.

“I could direct all my money and equipment to vote-by-mail,” she said, noting that the rural counties of Alpine and Sierra issue mail ballots to everyone. “All of the expenses and problems of running two elections would be off the table. It would be smooth.”

LaVine suggests it also could generate speedier election results by giving officials more time to count mail ballots before an election day. In California, seven congressional and legislative races remained undecided for a week as tens of thousands of late-arriving mail and “provisional” ballots were being tallied.

Neal Kelley, Orange County registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said it’s clear voters on their own are embracing the relative ease of vote-by-mail, which gives them 29 days to make their choices and helps them avoid busy polling places, parking and transportation issues, and time away from work.

Kelley said that if policymakers are prepared to move toward all-mail-ballot elections, elections officials “are ready to head in the same direction.”

Phil Keisling, former Oregon secretary of state, who helped champion that state’s all-mail-ballot elections, said that 50 percent to 60 percent of the votes were coming in via the Postal Service when the electorate decided to make the switch in 1998.

In 2000, Oregon “rationalized,” the system, he said, mailing out ballots to all voters and creating several channels for them to be returned, including in-person at designated drop stations or government offices. Scaled-down booths are set up for voters who prefer the experience of drawing a curtain and voting in public.

Now, within 72 hours of an election day, “my guess is the number of counted ballots stands at 98 or 99percent,” said Keisling, director of the Center of Public Service at Portland State University.

He also pointed to the potential savings. By one estimate, Oregon saved one-quarter to one-third of costs by conducting elections via mail.

In Colorado, a dozen counties representing 80percent of the population were surveyed about their costs before the state made the switch to all-mail last year. Using the 2010 general election, officials estimated an all-mail savings of nearly 19percent, or $1.05 less per registered voter. And a pilot of an all-mail election in Yolo County showed savings of as much as 43percent compared with polling place elections.

“You either need to dial back on absentee ballots or you ought to go all-in,” Keisling said of California. “For the life of me I don’t understand why there hasn’t been a drumbeat one way or the other.”

Absentee voting wasn’t always the preferred option. In 1978, less than 5percent of voters statewide cast absentee ballots. The 2012 general election marked the first time that more than 50percent voted by mail ballot.

While some opponents believe all-mail elections open the door to voter fraud, academics and voting-rights advocates worry an all-mail statewide voting system would further disenfranchise young people, residents at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder and those whose native language is not English..

Every election, many ballots go uncounted, including those that are filled out incorrectly, missing valid signatures or simply mailed in too late. Research out of UC Davis shows that nearly 3percent of the vote-by-mail ballots received – or roughly 91,000 – in the June primary election were not counted. It was 1percent, or 69,000 ballots, in the 2012 general election.

“California has one of the highest uncounted mail-ballot counts in the nation,” said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation. “At a time when civic participation is in decline, I think it’s important to nurture the voting process as much as we can, which means operating polling places and keeping voting a visible, public act rather than something people only do in the privacy of their homes.”

Other experts doubt moving to all-mail would indeed speed up the counting process. Much of the lag time is attributable to the large number of ballots that pour into county elections offices in the final days and hours.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., said Los Angeles is preparing to use a new law in its 2015 elections that will allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to count. That means ballots could trickle in on Wednesday, Thursday and potentially up to the weekend after the election. “That will make for an even longer process as they won’t even have all the ballots for a few days,” he said.

Meanwhile, the impact on voter participation remains unresolved. The report on Yolo County found turnout in the all-mailed ballot elections did not differ much from two prior traditional polling-place elections.

All-mail elections are not new in California. Monterey County held one of the first vote-by-mail elections in the nation in 1977, when voters considered a flood control measure. San Diego County used the the system on a measure that proposed building a $224million convention center in 1981.

Two years later, state lawmakers approved a pilot project for Placer and Stanislaus counties. Currently, Yolo and San Mateo counties can hold the nontraditional contests and San Diego was recently allowed to conduct all-mail special elections to fill vacant legislative and congressional seats.

Secretary of State-elect Alex Padilla said while he expects mail voting to continue to be an important part of elections in the state, it’s critical to maintain an in-person voting option for those – like his mother – who prefer to cast their ballot in person. Padilla said he’s intrigued by the pilot in San Diego that mails ballots to every voter and allows them to vote in-person at a scaled down number of locations before the election or on an election day.

“I think that latitude is great for voters as well,” he said. “Maybe it’s more convenient to vote by where I work, or where I drop my kids off at school, or by the shopping mall or the grocery store – to not be geographically constrained only to a polling place closest to where I live.”

Whatever changes occur are likely to take some time to materialize. Through the 2016 presidential election cycle, most Californians will continue to vote through a combination of mail balloting and individualized polling places on election days, said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County's registrar-recorder/county clerk.

Beyond that, Logan envisions voting will evolve to become more responsive to the nature and expectations of the electorate. That may include expanded options through vote centers where voters could appear and receive the correct ballot. The hours, dates and locations may accommodate early voters. He also sees expanded access to voting instructions, information and election results accessible through interactive applications on personal and mobile devices.

“In a nutshell,” he said, “I think the future of voting will be more customizable and adaptable than what voters experience today.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916)326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago

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