There’s a new study out this week that documents the extent to which California has transitioned to a new way of voting, one that has created a pool of 6 million voters who may participate in every future election but never again set foot inside a polling place.
These are people who have signed up to be permanent mail-in voters, and their numbers are growing at a breathtaking pace: from 2.7 million in the 2004 election, to 4 million in 2006 to 5.6 million in 2008. They now represent more than a third of all California voters.
In his paper on the growth in permanent mail voters published in this month’s Survey Practice, a journal for pollsters, Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo notes that turnout among permanent mail voters was significantly higher than total voter turnout in the last two statewide general elections. In 2006, when overall turnout was 56.2 percent, the voting rate of permanent mail voters was 77.7 percent. In 2008, the comparable numbers were 79.4 percent and 86.3 percent.
In low-profile elections the difference is even more striking. In last May’s statewide special election, overall turnout was just 28.4 percent. But almost half, or 48.6 percent, of permanent mail voters returned their ballots.
Much about this phenomenon is overwhelmingly positive.
Permanent mail voting has increased voter participation, made it possible for voters to take their time and consult reference materials when completing lengthy and complex ballots and, judging from the public response, provided a great many Californians with a convenient voting option that they like and prefer.
Unfortunately, DiCamillo’s research also reveals an unfortunate side effect: Permanent mail voting has intensified the demographic disconnect between the California populace and the California electorate.
The pool of registered voters in the state has always been older, more affluent and more Anglo than the adult population at large. With the growth of permanent mail voting, the differences among actual voters appear to have become even more pronounced.
Based on data collected from the Field Poll’s pre-election surveys, DiCamillo concludes, “There are significant demographic differences between the state’s permanent mail ballot registrants and other registered voters.”
There are geographic, age-based and ethnic disparities.
For instance, voters ages 18 to 29 make up only 13 percent of permanent mail voters, but 19 percent of all other voters. Those over 65 make up 29 percent of those who always vote by mail, but only 15 percent of all other voters.
Latinos are vastly under-represented among permanent mail voters, accounting for just 14 percent. Among all other voters, 24 percent are Latino.
Kim Alexander, founder of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, says permanent mail voting may be exacerbating the lack of diversity among California voters. “Policy-makers need to be mindful of that,” she said.
Alexander notes that the impulse of county elections officials — who now must conduct essentially two elections every Election Day, one through the mail and the other in person — has been to reduce the number of polling places and, in many cases, to urge that voting be conducted entirely by mail.
“Just because the vote-by-mail rate keeps going up doesn’t mean it’s time to start closing polling places,” Alexander said. “All voters should be able to vote in the way they’re most comfortable.”
Alexander said DiCamillo’s data also reveal the importance of getting elections officials in every county to uniformly promote vote-by-mail registration.
Until very recently, officials in Los Angeles County — the state’s largest and most diverse — had been decidedly cool to mail voting and did nothing to promote permanent mail registration. The result is striking: DiCamillo’s data show that LA County voters account for only 10 percent of permanent mail voters but 32 percent of all other voters.
The Voter Foundation not long ago commissioned a survey of 1,000 registered but infrequent voters. It found the No. 1 reason they cite for not voting regularly is that they don’t have time on Election Day. Yet, more than half were unfamiliar with mail-in voting. “That was kind of astonishing,” Alexander said.
DiCamillo’s study shows that the popularity of permanent-mail voting has continued to increase dramatically even nine years after the option was established. It’s not going away.
The challenge to those who would like to see a California electorate more reflective of its people is to educate young and minority voters about an option that makes voting more convenient.