The vote is in the mail


Sacramento Bee

Call Stephen Weir a vote-by-mail convert and he’ll take it as a compliment.

Weir, who has served as Contra County’s chief elections officer for the past 17 years and is currently president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, used to question the integrity of mailing ballots. But after conducting a special county election in 2004 with a low rate of rejected ballots and a turnout higher than that year’s presidential primary, Weir is now a believer.

“We’re moving toward a tipping point,” said the bespectacled county clerk. “We’re beyond the state where you can just turn your head from it.”

During California’s latest election in November, nearly 42 percent of voters turned in absentee ballots — continuing the mailbox trend. Of the state’s 58 counties, 16 received more absentee ballots than votes cast directly at polling places. Given the convenience, many elections officials say it’s no surprise that absentee ballots have become so popular.

The clerks association, along with the League of California Cities, is lobbying the Legislature for a pilot program that would let counties test all-mail elections. The program, the groups say, would be modeled after Oregon, where ballots have been mailed statewide since 1998. Election officials there praise the program for delivering higher turnouts — particularly among decline-to-state and minor-party voters — and with trimming overhead costs by 30 percent.

“I think it’s the absolute best way,” said Al Davidson, a former clerk of Marion County, Ore., who is now an elections administration consultant. “It’s like anything you can do on the Internet. You can sit in your pajamas, take all the time you need to study the issues, and read the voter pamphlet. … You don’t have that when you have five minutes in the voting booth.”

But voter advocates have mixed feelings, noting that California has 58 different voting systems, compared to one in Oregon.

“You can look at Oregon and say it’s working well because the whole process is streamlined,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

The vote-by-mail idea surfaced in Sacramento a few weeks ago as Democratic leaders began pushing a bill to move California’s 2008 presidential primary from June to February, saying they want to give the most populous state in the nation more clout in the nomination process.

The Association of Clerks and Election Officials proposed giving county boards the option to conduct all-mail ballots in an effort to reduce voter fatigue and save taxpayer dollars.

Senators, however, felt the move might derail the bill and quickly nixed the suggestion.

“We are now wanting to be the first in the county,” said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. “The last thing I want to do is mismanage an election we’ve never conducted before.”

Lobbyists aren’t giving up and are now eyeing future elections. If they succeed in finding a legislator to carry their bill, California could join states like Colorado, Idaho and Montana in exploring the idea of voting by mail. Besides Oregon, nearly all counties in Washington state conduct elections by mail.

Though popular where it’s used, conducting entire elections by mail has been a tough sell in other parts of the country. In November, Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected — 72 percent to 28 percent — an initiative calling for a statewide mail-only election process.

Opponents like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce argued there was no empirical evidence that turnout would go up, and the group cited fraud and intimidation as reasons to vote no.

Davidson, the consultant, suspects voters there, as well as in other states, need a slow transition, mailing ballots in local races before working up to statewide elections. That was Oregon’s path.

In 1981, the Oregon Legislature approved a pilot program in local elections. By 1998, voters overwhelmingly passed a statewide initiative making the change permanent. Five years later, a University of Oregon assessment found that 81 percent of voters liked the change.

Under Oregon’s system, voters turn in their ballots, and election workers check to make sure signatures match voter registration cards. If the signature doesn’t match, the voter is contacted.

“We don’t process the ballot until every signature is verified,” said John Lindback, Oregon’s elections director.

But Alexander said she’s still concerned about an “unintentional disenfranchisement” of voters who turn their ballots in on Election Day.

Since Oregon switched from a hybrid election — using both precinct and absentee voting — to a total vote-by-mail election, county clerks say they have been able to cut costs by one-third. In three sample counties, the cost of conducting the general election in 1998 was $3.07 per person. The cost dropped to $2.21 by 2004, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Turnout in presidential election years went up 8.5 percent between 1996 and 2000, and it went up 6.7 percent between 2000 and 2004.

Back in California, Perata, the Senate Democratic leader, says he’s open to the switch.

“Sooner or later, we’re probably going to see everybody vote by mail because it’s become so convenient and so necessary,” he said.

(Contact Judy Lin at jlin(at)