I. In Focus This Week
California considers taking plunge to almost all vote-by-mail
SB 450 would move California to the “Colorado Model”
By M. Mindy Moretti
The Adams’ house in Northern California is a house divided. Marcia prefers to cast her ballot by mail and is on a permanent vote-by-mail list. Ted prefers to make his way to his local polling place on Election Day.
“I enjoy seeing how many people in my local precinct have voted, getting an “I Voted” sticker, Ted Adams said. “When my children were of an appropriate age, I took them along a number of times, which I felt was beneficial. It is a positive experience.”
However, if Senate Bill 450 is approved, Ted may soon be joining Marcia at the kitchen table to fill out his ballot before dropping it in the mail.
Senate Bill 450 would essentially shift the majority of California to the "Colorado Model” of voting. Under this model every registered voter would receive a ballot in the mail and then they would be able to cast the ballot through a variety of ways — mail, in-person at vote centers, or in drop boxes.
With many counties already majority vote-by-mail, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and many local elections officials support the legislation.
San Mateo County Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder-Chief Election Official Mark Church is supportive of the legislation and also supported AB 2028 that allowed San Mateo to conduct a three-year pilot program of conducting all local elections by mail.
“San Mateo County voters and the majority of California voters have increasingly used voting by mail as the primary method to cast their ballots,” Church said. “The potential benefits of all-mailed ballot elections include increased participation, increased efficiency, reduced costs, reduced risk of human error and earlier returns on election night. Those are the reasons I support all-mailed ballot elections.”
In Napa County, Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said that should the legislation win approval, the switch will be easy for his county because the county is currently approximately 88 percent vote-by-mail.
“We also created Vote by Mail Assistance Centers for the 2008 Presidential Election cycle with centers in each municipality,” Tuteur said. “Each center has real time access to our DFM EIMS database so that we can issue temporary and replacement vote by mail ballots. These centers, plus new, additional centers in our populated areas, can easily function as vote centers if the legislation passes.”
Unlike the Colorado law though, if approved, California counties would have the option of not participating in the program and could continue to function under the existing vote-by-mail, neighborhood polling place system.
“This policy change will increase access to the ballot, and that, I think, should be supported,” said Shasta County Clerk/Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen. “Will my county choose to participate? Hard to say, in the legislation’s current form; things are changing fast, so it may be workable in the end. Small to mid-size counties may not realize the cost savings that are currently being assumed by the authors.”
Currently, 61 percent of Shasta County voters vote-by-mail.
The impacts the legislation will have on the function of elections offices will vary. As Tuteur noted, there will be only small adjustments whereas Darling Allen said there would be major impacts on her office during the initial shift those should even out in the long run.
“The primary impact will be in shifting the focus and the workload from the back-end of the election process to the front-end,” Church said. “In a traditional polling place election, we hire and train some 1,700 poll workers, deploy and test over 1,400 voting machines, secure 209 polling places and provide a comprehensive Election Day network of field support. Most of that will be unnecessary with an all-mailed ballot election.”
Church said that instead the focus will be on voter education and community outreach, which was obvious based on the voters we spoke with who are all consistent voters but were completely unaware of the proposed legislation.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the need for voter education around this new model,” Darling Allen said. “Also needed will be targeted information – what if two of the nine Bay Area counties do not choose this model? They share a large media market, and it might be tricky to make sure that voters know what their counties are doing.”
There are changes the officials would like to see before the legislation is approved. Church would like see a requirement that all return envelopes for the ballots to be postage prepaid; Tuteur would like to see funding assistance to make the conversion to vote centers and vote-by-mail; and Darling Allen noted that there are concerns about the vote centers.
“I know some very small counties are having some concerns about the currently discussed four vote center minimum,” Darling Allen said. “While I understand completely the concerns that led to that “floor,” I also can appreciate that going from five polling places to four vote centers will not save a small county money, which could make it difficult to use this new model.”
While the elections officials are supportive of the legislation, the jury is still out with the voters we spoke with about it.
“I have mixed feelings about the legislation,” Ted Adams said. “On one side, I consider voting to be a fundamental right… On the other, nothing magical is happing here. Many voters have only the slightest awareness of the governmental process much less the issues, candidates, etc.”
San Diego County voter Priscilla Venegas expressed some concerns for the potential for voter fraud, especially after hearing an NPR piece this week about politiqueras, but said that whatever concerns she may have are far outweighed by the number of new voters the system would welcome.
“Overall, tapping into a new network of voters, that would make the change worth it,” said Venegas who along with her husband Martin is still a traditional polling place-based voter.
Venegas did admit that she would miss the camaraderie of heading to the local elementary school on Election Day.
“I like how micro-local it is,” Venegas said. “You see people from your neighborhood and while we don’t talk about how we voted, it’s a shared experience.”
Even supportive elections officials admit there are some things they would miss about the current system including scenic polling places and poll workers.
“It’s the poll workers that we’ll miss the most, I think, if this comes to pass,” said Darling Allen. “We won’t have space for all of them, I don’t think, and many of them might not be interested in working for 10 days, etc.”
If California moves forward and follows in Colorado’s footsteps with election reform, one only has to wonder what they will legalize next?
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