Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Is all mail-in balloting in California's future?

Today's Contra Costa Times features this article by Lisa Vorderbrueggen focusing on Contra Costa county's voting trends. Registrar Steve Weir says in the upcoming June Primary, more voters in his county will vote by mail than at the polls. Is all mail-in balloting in California's future? Excerpts from the story are featured below.


Contra Costans voting by mail may, for the first time, outnumber those who walk into their polling places June 6.

The trend mirrors a statewide uptick in voting by mail that hits election officials' budgets, alters campaign strategies and inches California closer to a day when it may have to choose between tradition and convenience.

"We're right now in the worst possible combination of both worlds," said Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir and incoming president of the California Association of Clerks and Registrars.

"We have to run a full precinct operation, and with the tremendous amount of turnout coming in the mail, I don't have the economy of either scale benefiting us."

Based on absentee ballot return rates thus far, Weir predicted Contra Costa could see mail-in voters overtake Election Day voters for the first time.

If it happens, Weir said, it may foreshadow a tipping point where most Californians vote by mail, and lawmakers may rethink whether it makes sense to deploy a massive and costly Election Day operation.

Like many California counties, the East Bay's vote-by-mail rate has risen steadily since the state's expanded permanent absentee voter program took effect in 2002.


Today, Contra Costa has more than 160,000 permanent absentee voters, and Alameda reports 280,000 on its rolls.

For most folks, registrars agree, it is a matter of convenience. No need to rush home to vote or drive aimlessly around looking for a parking space outside the polling site.

"More and more people prefer to vote by mail, and I don't see a reason why that trend won't continue," said Dave Macdonald, acting Alameda County Registrar of Voters. "Somewhere down the road, perhaps all voting will be done by mail. But for now, we have to do both."


A bill by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, that would have allowed California counties to adopt an all-mail voting system died in committee last year. At the time, Alameda and other counties faced serious problems obtaining certified voting equipment.

Hancock still likes the idea. "It's clear that people are voting by mail because they want to and in states like Oregon, it has increased turn-out," Hancock said. "Plus, it's cheaper, which would free up money for much-needed other services."

Critics of mail-in voting agree it saves money, but they dispute turnout numbers and suggest other concerns.

The turnout claim, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, is based on a percentage of registered voters who return ballots.

"All you have to do is purge your registration list of people who have died or moved, and you alter the percentages," Gans said.

Voting by mail is a convenience for upper- and middle-class voters, Gans said, that hurts the poor and disenfranchises people who may vote before relevant information surfaces about a candidate or an issue. Domineering family members may also exert pressure on spouses to vote their way, he added, which the voting booth privacy precludes.

The more likely outcome, said California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander, is a hybrid network of convenient, high-tech voting centers coupled with mail voting and improved security at the U.S. Post Office.

"I don't see polling places going away," Alexander said.

"For many people, voting on Election Day is one of the last remaining spaces in public life where people convene and participate in democracy."

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