In San Mateo County, voters are increasingly choosing to send in their ballots by mail rather than waiting in line at a precinct on Election Day. In the last election, the state primary on June 3, 75,522 of 97,447 ballots cast were by mail. Just more than 56 percent of this county’s registered voters request to do so by mail.
The reason is simple. It’s convenient. And it also saves money because precincts don’t have to be staffed with election workers and there is less need for couriers to deliver the ballots to the Elections Office for counting. So legislation by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, to include San Mateo County in a pilot program for all-mail elections makes a whole lot of sense.
The legislation, Assembly Bill 2028, is waiting to clear the Senate floor in early August before making it to the governor for his signature.
The legislation is simple and follows in the footsteps of another pilot program for Yolo County. However, this would provide for an urban county to determine just how such a measure would work. We imagine it will work just fine and, in fact, increase voter participation. Currently, those who choose to vote by mail request their ballot to be mailed to them and they can fill it out at their convenience as long as it is received by the Elections Office by Election Day. Under this pilot program, all registered voters will receive ballots by mail, which might increase participation for those who may not have known an election was coming. Postage would also be pre-paid.
If this legislation passes, the pilot elections will not be for gubernatorial or presidential elections in even years, but rather odd-numbered election years typically reserved for municipal and district elections, specifically city councils and school boards. Municipalities and districts can choose to participate in up to three elections before 2018 so an ideal candidate would be November 2015 or November 2017 or any special election. While most of the ballots will be mailed, voters can also drop off their ballots at specified locations in a city or district on Election Day.
San Mateo County has a history of success with all-mail elections. In May 2011, a consolidated local all-mail special election for a countywide vote for District One supervisor saw 88,903 ballots cast, which is just a shade lower than the number for the most recent election. There were also several school measures on that 2011 ballot, which saved those districts the expense of their own special election. There was no question about the validity of the vote or problems with minority participation.
Once the pilot program is over, it will be good to see it expand to gubernatorial and presidential elections. Turnout is already typically high for those elections but it would also create cost savings.
Change is hard for some and the idea for political parties of last-minute get-out-the-vote drives is also hard to let go. Those who run political campaigns have also complained about the split in the election cycle between Election Day and when vote-by-mail ballots are mailed to voters. But that has been part of the political calculus for some time now and our system was not created to make it easier for political parties or campaign managers. This legislation will encourage voter participation, particularly for special and less popular elections not anchored to a gubernatorial or presidential campaign. The expansion of this pilot program to include San Mateo County will provide key data in moving the idea along for further exploration by other counties. It is progress. It is smart. It is efficient. It is time.