Holding all-mail ballot elections in San Mateo County will cut down on cost, speed up returns and potentially push up voter turnout, according to local officials keeping their fingers crossed that a proposed bill allowing the practice meets with gubernatorial approval.
The bill authored by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, passed the Legislature Monday and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature or veto.
“I’m pretty excited about this one. There have been multiple legislative attempts over the years and we finally got it across the finish line at least as far as the Legislature is concerned,” Mullin said.
All-mail ballots eliminate the need for poll workers and let voters make their choices at their convenience. On Election night, more ballots will be counted immediately after the polls close at 8 p.m. which translates into knowing more quickly who and what won.
Mark Church, San Mateo County chief elections officer, said he is “strongly committed” to participating in the pilot and noted — similar to former chief elections officer Warren Slocum, now a county supervisor — that the possible implementation of all-mail ballots has been a long time coming.
Slocum, in his previous position, pushed five or six years to move away from polls and to mail-based elections. Despite the efforts, the idea was stymied by concerns including a potential dampening of minority turnout and other adverse effects. But quite the opposite is true, he said.
Mullin’s bill, which would add San Mateo County to a pilot program already underway in Yolo County, will contribute more information about how all-mail ballots would work statewide and educate the public, Slocum said.
That data can help propel greater expansion beyond the two counties after the pilot expires in 2018.
San Mateo County has long favored absentee voting. In the June primary, mail-in ballots accounted for 78 percent of votes cast. Neighboring counties saw similar trends. Santa Clara County noted 81 percent by mail and Marin County had 77 percent, according to Church’s data.
In 2010, San Mateo County’s charter was amended to allow all-mail ballots to fill supervisor vacancies and the first such election in May 2011 showed a 26 percent turnout, higher than special elections traditionally. The cost was $713,149 of which the county footed $561,086.
In contrast, an April 1997 special election using traditional polling places cost $467,000 and had 15.6 percent turnout.
Church said results can vary from election to election which is why more information like that expected from the pilot project is necessary.
While the proposed legislation’s goal is moving all voters to absentee ballots, the bill also leaves a little room for those who prefer the traditional method. In addition to sending a ballot, return envelope and prepaid postage to each voter, there will be at least one physical polling place and drop-off location in each city.
Although proponents of all-mail elections cite their efficiency and convenience as motivating factors, Church said there are still challenges including the price tag — albeit significantly less than traditional elections — and the reliability of mail service that could hypothetically cause delays or losses. Church said fraud like vote buying or coercion can also happen along with a lack of privacy because votes aren’t cast in a controlled setting but that none of those possibilities have ever happened with current absentee voting.
Once the governor signs the legislation, Mullin said the next hurdle is getting the county’s cities on board to allow their municipal elections by all-mail ballots.
“I really want this to be utilized,” Mullin said.
Church said he anticipates most would appreciate the change because of the possible cost savings. That said, he anticipates what he described as an extensive educational process to the municipalities and public.
The question, he said, will be which districts or municipalities will be tapped to participate.
All-mail ballots will also impact the county’s and state’s long-range approach to voting systems. The county’s HART InterCivic electronic system purchased in 2006 is aging and the cost of a replacement will depend on variables including the potential of an all-mail process, Church said.
For example, an all-mail system would drop the existing 210 poling places to roughly 20 or 25 which means fewer staff and less equipment.
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