California’s election check? It’s in the mail

Mail-in ballots, being sorted in 2008 at the Orange County Registrar of Voters office, are an increasingly popular way to vote.
Mail-in ballots, being sorted in 2008 at the Orange County Registrar of Voters office, are an increasingly popular way to vote. Los Angeles Times file

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: How would you prefer to vote? At standard polling places with paper ballots, with mail-in ballots or online? Which method would increase voter turnout? Submit a letter or comment on our Facebook page.

This year California set a record, but not one that anyone will want to brag about: On Nov. 4, the state counted the lowest voter turnout in recorded history.

Just 42.2 percent of people registered to vote in the general election actually did so. Another shameful record shattered: For the first time, more voters chose to sit out the election than cast a ballot.

There are myriad theories why this downward trend continues. They include a backlash from negative campaigning, a sense that one’s vote doesn’t count, a dislike for politicians and politics, and general apathy. But no one really knows for certain.

What we do know, however, is that our election processes need a serious overhaul. Hear that Mr. Secretary of State-elect? When Alex Padilla takes over the job from Debra Bowen, which can’t come soon enough, he must make it a top priority to both increase the voter rolls (he promised at least 1 million more voters as part of his election campaign) and revamp the state’s voting systems.

He can start by dismantling the polls. At least, most of them.

We know, that sounds counterintuitive to improving voter turnout, but chew on this interesting factoid: Voting by mail has been increasing every one of the last 50 years, and by great leaps in the last few. In the June primary election, for example, almost 70 percent of the ballots cast were mail ballots. In the 2012 general election, it was about 51 percent.

It’s a cheaper way to go, too. When Yolo County tried out an all-mail election, it saved about 43 percent compared to a traditional election. Though voters increasingly prefer mail-in ballots, election rules mean that counties still have to staff and pay for the full array of polling places in case people show up on Election Day.

It’s even worse for special elections, when turnout is exceptionally tiny.

For that reason, Sacramento city officials are wisely considering conducting an all-mail election to replace former Councilman Kevin McCarty in District 6 on April 7. Under the plan, which will be voted by the council on Tuesday, there would be a number of drop-off ballot locations in the district and City Hall in the weeks preceding the election and a polling place open on Election Day itself.

It could save the city at least a quarter of the $200,000 cost of a regular election, according to the city clerk.

Put those two things together and you can see why there’s a rising chorus of the state’s election officials – including Sacramento County Registrar Jill LaVine – singing the praises of all-mail elections.

We also think it’s a great idea to save money and to gauge whether all-mail elections make sense in general citywide elections in the future.

What we don’t think is a great idea, though, is shutting down all the polls, in part because of another trend in how Californians vote.

Neal Kelley, Orange County’s registrar of voters and the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, noted that while mail-in ballot use has exploded in his county – 140 percent growth in the last decade – many of the voters aren’t actually mailing in those ballots. Increasingly, they are dropping off mail-in ballots at actual polls, allowing them both the leisure to fill out a ballot and the experience of voting on Election Day. About 100,000 Orange County voters dropped off their ballots this year, up from 60,000 in 2012.

The takeaway from all of these broken records, facts and figures is this: Some hybrid version of mailed ballots and voting centers makes the most sense for elections in the near future, both to save money and to encourage an upward trend in voter turnout.

Then we have to start talking about online voting. It’s the natural evolution. For the most part, we shop, bank and communicate online safely and securely; there has to be a way to conduct elections online as well. For now, we can put our trust in the ol’ USPS.