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Cheaper, popular mail-in ballots worry critics

Brigaid/FlickrNearly half of all Californians vote by mail.

Californians are mailing it in.

Results from the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election – which had the highest turnout since 1994 – show that ballots cast by mail made up 48 percent of total votes. During the 2006 gubernatorial election, only 41.6 percent of voters cast ballots by mail.

The increasing shift to vote-by-mail ballots is a positive sign for many election officials. They say it increases voter turnout and is considerably cheaper than the cost counties pay for regular voters. But critics argue the true cost of the system may be higher than reported by its boosters. They also say election officials need to take a closer look at the social costs, such as how the mail-in system affects homeless voters.

Gail Pellerin, president of the Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said that in Santa Cruz County, where she serves as county clerk, regular voters cost the county $10 while vote-by-mail voters cost $3.

Costs are lower because of less staff time and fewer equipment costs. Plus, the state refunds counties the costs of sending out and counting vote-by-mail ballots – another major incentive for local governments to promote voting by mail.

Since California adopted its permanent vote-by-mail program in 2002, the number of such voters has increased dramatically. In the 2002 primary election, only 4 percent of registered voters were permanent vote-by-mail voters. In the 2010 primary election, 35 percent of registered voters had signed up to vote permanently by mail, according to recent figures [XLS] from the secretary of state.

Kim Alexander, founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit based in Sacramento that encourages voter participation, said that despite its popularity, not enough is known about the effectiveness of mail-in voting. “How many ballots are going out, how many are coming back, how much extra work are they creating for election officials?” Alexander asked.

The vote-by-mail system is supposed to make it easier on election departments by allowing voters to turn in their ballots before Election Day, but a large number of vote-by-mail voters turn in their ballots at the last minute.

In San Francisco, 87,747 ballots were returned before Election Day, and 56,881 were returned on Election Day. In Alameda County, 150,000 vote-by-mail ballots were returned before Election Day and 90,000 on Election Day, according to election officials.

“It takes more time for us to process the ones that come in on Election Day – that just adds to our workload,” said Dave Macdonald, registrar of Alameda County, where the vote-by-mail turnout was more than twice as high as at the polls. “We had a lot of staff after Election Day to process all the vote-by-mail ballots.”

Nevertheless, he said, "I think if you talk to most registrars in California, most us are pretty big fans of vote-by-mail."

Every election, a high percentage of voters return the vote-by-mail ballot they requested. But a large number of ballots are wasted – printed, mailed and then never used. Since the permanent vote-by-mail system was instituted, 23 million ballots sent out to potential voters have been either lost or never returned to election departments.

"I’ve seen a lot of ... ballots not connecting with voters," Alexander said. “We had lots of people calling us on Election Day saying, ‘I lost my vote my bail ballot, how do I vote? I don’t want to be a permanent vote-by-mail voter – how do I get off of this? I never got my ballot – can I still vote today? Am I registered to vote today?’ ”

In a 2005 survey by the California Voter Foundation, 44 percent of non-voters said they were registered to vote – but not at their current address. About one in four said they were eligible but unregistered because they moved around so much that it was difficult to stay registered.

And a report [PDF] published by the Colorado secretary of state found that minorities, young people, singles and divorced people move at significantly above-average rates. Twenty-one percent of people with incomes under $25,000 change residences within one year, compared to 12 percent of people over $100,000. Renters are three times more likely to move.

(UPDATE: A study of vote-by-mail in three California counties found that turnout decreases in presidential and gubernatorial elections but increases in local special elections.)

A Pew Center on the States study [PDF] found that mandatory vote-by-mail systems decrease the odds of someone voting by 13.2 percent, with negative effects on the turnout of urban and minority populations. However, the Pew Center concluded:

Election officials can play a role in ameliorating that effect in the number of communications they send to voters informing them of upcoming changes; we find four mailings to be critical to overcoming negative effects.

When someone who is registered to vote by mail changes addresses, they will not receive their ballot. The Postal Service will not forward it to their new address, but instead sends it back to the county elections department. The voter will have to reregister to receive their ballot by mail.

In Yolo County, home to UC Davis and a population of about 200,000, a large percentage of vote-by-mail ballots were processed – out of 45,000 sent out, 30,000 came back, said Tom Stanionis, chief of staff of the Yolo County Elections Department.

But 300 to 400 came back to the county office because the voter had moved, Stanionis said. There are two reasons those ballots failed to reach Yolo County voters, he said. First, the county is home to a large mobile student population. Second, many voters still don’t respond to ballots arriving 29 days before Election Day.

“We’re a junk mail society,” he said. “A large percentage of voters don’t realize when it first comes that it’s actually the ballot – especially when every campaign makes it look like the mailers are their official ballots.”

In addition to those hundreds of ballots failing to connect with voters, there’s the issue of vote-by-mail voters – mostly college students in the case of Yolo County – picking up their vote-by-mail ballot from their former residence in a different county and trying to drop it off in Yolo County, where they now live and go to school. Those ballots will not be counted, Stanionis said. And in the Nov. 2 election in his county, there were 58 of those.

Other issues include ballots arriving after Election Day. Out of the 30,000 vote-by-mail ballots in this past Nov. 2 election, the majority were dropped off before Election Day and 4,000 were dropped off on Election Day. But about 1,000 arrived too late.

“Most of those that arrived late are people who put them in a mailbox on Election Day, thinking it was the postmark date,” said Stanionis.

A handful of ballots were not counted because voters sent in their ballots by mail and then voted provisionally at a polling place. Stanionis said those voters are most likely responding to campaigns that have pushed to make sure their vote is counted by voting at a polling place, regardless of their status as a vote-by-mail voter.

In Riverside County during the June primary, as many as 12,500 ballots arrived too late and were not counted because of communication problems between election officials and the post office, according to news reports. In San Francisco in the June election, a private company that the city’s election department contracted to send out the ballots mailed out thousands of duplicate ballots and ballots with the wrong names.

Some states like Oregon have a strict vote-by-mail system – with a 70 percent voter turnout – and have eliminated polls entirely. Other states with high vote-by-mail turnout, like Colorado and Washington, have considered switching over to a mandatory vote-by-mail system.

Beyond the logistical complications, some worry that a mail-in system is unfair to those without a permanent address.

Rev. Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister and homeless advocate who has served on the board of the National Coalition on Homelessness, has watched the vote-by-mail system take hold in his home state of Oregon.

In 1998, when the state instituted mandatory mail-in voting, Currie and other advocates requested further research from the U.S. Justice Department as to how the mandatory vote-by-mail system would impact the homeless population.

But Currie said then-Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder responded by saying he would look into it if there were evidence that people might be losing their right to vote.

“The burden on asking us to conduct the investigation was absurd – which was why we approached the federal government in the first place,” said Currie. “State officials were going to move forward with this regardless.”

Every two years, Currie and a nonprofit called Burnside Activists conducted massive voter-registration drives, registering thousands of homeless people. But after the mandatory vote-by-mail system was instituted, the organization completely stopped doing those drives.

“It seemed a waste of time to do that because it seemed those people would just get kicked off the voter roles in the event of an address change – and people who are homeless move sometimes daily,” Currie said.

Homeless voters who cast their ballots by mail have to list an address and pick up their ballot at that address. In the past, they could vote at a polling place. But Currie said that after voting by mail became mandatory:

You’d go to the agencies where people had to register to vote and they had stacks and stacks of ballots that had never reached voters. Then the agency has to return it to the Secretary of State’s office and the voter gets removed.

Voting by mail is becoming increasingly popular across the country. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced a package of bills that would create financial incentives for states shifting to vote-by-mail and make it easier for them to adopt Oregon's vote-by-mail system.

Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., introduced the Universal Right to Vote By Mail Act requiring all states to offer citizens the option of voting by mail, as California did in 2002. There have been at least 32 bills in 18 state legislatures that aimed to replace polling places with vote-by-mail elections, according to Project Vote.

It doesn’t look like California will be adopting a mandatory vote-by-mail system anytime soon, but some government leaders have tried pass measures that would analyze the effects of all vote-by-mail voting on local elections.

This year, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, introduced a bill would have brought an all vote-by-mail pilot project to Yolo County. AB 1681 would have required the county to report the cost, the turnout of different populations, the number of ballots that were not counted and the reasons why they were rejected, and any voter fraud problems.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.


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