Friday, February 4, 2011

Rumors of an all vote-by-mail June Special election unattributed

I can't help but notice that a dramatic headline in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle, that has been widely reproduced by several online news organizations is based on a column that includes no attribution for the "story" itself.  The headline reads (and I am reluctant to even repeat it because it is clearly a mere rumor at this point):  "June special election may be vote-by-mail only".  It is attached to a column by Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, who actually report that the idea is being "batted about" but don't say who is doing the batting.

My guess is that it is the county registrars of voters doing the batting.  They have pined for an all vote-by-mail system ever since our neighbors to the north, Oregon and Washington, adopted the process and have sponsored legislation numerous times to try it out.

The thing is, California isn't Oregon or Washington.  We are a nation-state, home to 17 million registered voters with multiple language requirements, many who rely on assistance at the polls.  And we have none of the streamlining of vote-by-mail procedures that exists in our neighboring states.  What we have is 58 counties running 58 different vote-by-mail systems that, while based on state laws, vary greatly in every detail, from the color of the envelope a vote-by-mail ballot is returned in to whether the cost of postage is covered and even the "rules" counties follow on accepting vote-by-mail ballots.

For example, under current state law it is not legal for someone else in your family or household to return a vote-by-mail ballot to your polling place for you unless you are ill or physically disabled.  But many people have someone else in their household return their ballot to the polls for them on Election Day because they are out of town, or "something came up".  Technically, this is not legal under state law.  Whether counties actually enforce that law is left up to them to decide.

These varying procedures make it difficult for groups working to maximize voter participation, such as the California Voter Foundation, to provide instructions that all voters can follow and rely upon statewide.  In an election where our Governor hopes to see a demonstration of voting rights similar to what is taking place in Egypt and Tunisia, it is unimaginable that polling places would not be open across the state.

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