Expand voting by mail and make it easier, but don’t ditch polling places

Olga Torres, second from right, and others inspect vote by mail ballots that will be shipped out to various precints.
Olga Torres, second from right, and others inspect vote by mail ballots that will be shipped out to various precints.

Ever since 2002, when the Legislature made it possible for Californians to become permanent vote-by-mail voters, the percentage of people who cast ballots by mail has continued to rise. More than half of votes cast in the 2012 presidential election were cast by mail, up nine percentage points from 2008.

In the June primary, nearly 70 percent voters cast votes by mail, up from 66 percent in the 2012 primary and 61 percent in 2010. The majority of votes cast in the upcoming election will be by mail.

The percentage in special elections is usually even higher. In San Diego County, for example, more than 80 percent of ballots in two recent special elections to fill legislative seats were absentee with some polling places having more poll workers than actual voters.

The trend is clear. How should government respond?

One approach is to do nothing.

We can continue to conduct our elections as we always have and set up polling stations even when fewer and fewer people use them. While some argue that democracy shouldn’t have a price tag, the fact is that elections are becoming increasingly expensive, especially given new federal rules requiring that voting sites be accessible to non-English speakers and people with disabilities.

A mail ballot costs taxpayers far less than a vote cast in a polling place; these costs only diverge further with fewer voters going to a polling location.

For example, Orange County could have saved an estimated $800,000 if all of its ballots were cast by mail in the June 2014 primary. And recent data from San Diego County show that across six recent special elections, the county could have saved between $180,000 and $1.2 million per election with only mail balloting.

Another approach: California could join Oregon and Washington state and mandate that all elections be conducted by mail.

We’re persuaded by research conducted by Elizabeth Bergman and Philip Yates, who argue that those two states do not face the challenges posed by California’s “population demographics, high density, or language diversity.”

Their highly regarded study shows that mandatory vote by mail can reduce participation by 13 percent, with the greatest impact on Hispanic, Asian, and urban voters. However, they also point out that the falloff in participation can be countered by a government-run muscular communications and outreach program.

We believe in a middle course.

According to state elections law, a local election official can make a precinct “all mail” if it has 250 or fewer voters. This figure has not been changed since 1994, when it was established.

We believe this figure should be increased to 500, with the proviso that more than 60 percent of the voters in a precinct cast their ballots by mail in two consecutive general elections. This would allow local election officials to designate more precincts all mail.

We selected general elections because more people turn out to vote in them than any other election. Furthermore, we would require ballot drop points such as city halls or post offices if people wanted to hand deliver their ballot. Of course, people who lost their ballots or simply wanted to vote at the polls would be able to go to a neighboring precinct and vote using a provisional ballot.

As more and more Californians decide to vote by mail, the push for reforming how we do it only becomes more important. We are excited about recent improvements proposed by the California Voter Foundation in its comprehensive study of mail voting systems in three counties.

Ideas such as standardizing multiple ballot drop-off locations, instituting “plain language” review of mail voting materials, developing a statewide online voter lookup platform so voters can track their ballots are all essential components.

The report also reveals the disturbing legislative trend of reducing funding to counties specifically in the area of vote-by-mail regulations.

We join the foundation and the Legislative Analyst’s Office in demanding an end to defunding the mandates the Legislature itself instituted. Counties should have more fiscal and organizational flexibility in their crucial work as caretakers of California’s democracy.

Fred Smoller teaches political science at Chapman University. Pete Peterson is the Republican candidate for secretary of state and is on leave from Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement.