Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What we can learn from Netflix to speed up ballot delivery

Last night, as I was putting the final touches on the California Voter Foundation's new report, Improving the Vote-by-Mail Process: A Three-County Study, I heard the mailman outside our door, picking up the Netflix DVD I was returning. It was past 6:30 p.m.

"Hmm," I thought, "He's here kind of late today."

First thing in the morning, while getting our report ready to distribute, I check my email. There is a message from Netflix. "We've received: Frozen" it says. It was timestamped 6:40 a.m. In twelve hours, that DVD went from my porch to Netflix and was logged into their system as received.

This was not the first time I considered how nearly magical the Netflix-U.S. Mail delivery process is. (And I am aware that it is a matter of controversy.) But in the past few weeks, as we have been finishing up our vote-by-mail study and recommending improvements to reduce vote-by-mail balloting errors, I increasingly began to wonder: what is Netflix doing so right that we are getting so wrong with our mail ballots, many of which arrive too late to count?

For starters, Netflix uses first class, postage paid, "Permit Reply" mail. This means the company prepays the postage on the return envelope. And that means the mail piece does not have to pass through a permit office to get dinged off an account before continuing on its postal journey. 

Netflix also has distribution centers all across the country. So the DVD doesn't have to get to one place, it has to get to the nearest Netflix location.

All the pieces weigh the same and look the same. The red envelope is eye-catching and easily recognized by postal employees. Barcodes are used to track the envelope and its contents to the exact customer and address.

The fact is, we could use first class, postage paid "Permit Reply" mail for vote-by-mail ballots. The reason we don't is because it would cost a lot. And voting by mail is a convenience, not a right. 

But our political leaders need to consider what we can learn from Netflix and utilize some of those lessons in how we process vote-by-mail ballots. 

To that end, the California Voter Foundation's new report features a number of recommendations, including one to allow voters to return their mail ballots to any election office or polling place in the state. This would allow ballots to get into the custody of the nearest election official and would help reduce disenfranchisement. Topics for further study include considering ways to standardize mail ballot postage rates and creating a uniform envelope statewide that is easily recognizeable. 

Using first class Permit Reply envelopes for voters living in all mail-ballot precincts would also be an improvement. Our study findings indicate that while these voters get postage paid envelopes (since they have no choice but to vote by mail) they require extra time for mail processing so the postage can be debited from the permit holder's account. 

In November 2012 in Sacramento County, 3.3 percent of voters in all mail-ballot precincts cast ballots that were not counted, compared to 1 percent for mail voters overall. And 81 percent of those uncounted ballots from mail ballot precincts were not counted because they arrived too late, compared to the overall late ballot rate of 45 percent.

A ballot is more valuable than a DVD. It's time we treat ballots as the precious items they are and find ways to streamline ballot delivery so fewer people are disenfranchised and more ballots are counted.