News

In California, Election Day really is Election Month

U.S. Senate election, 2012

When Californians vote, most head to the mail box not the ballot box.

And what was once a small portion of the electorate now is narrowly dominant.

“In California, Election Day is really Election Month, since vote-by-mail ballots are mailed 29 days before Election Day.  Mailers, advertising buys and door-to-door canvassing are all coming earlier than they did 30 years ago,” said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

Many suggest that the attraction of mail-in elections lies in their reduction of cost while others note that it’s  the presumed higher voter turnout.

In little more than a decade, mail-in or “absentee” voting for statewide elections quadrupled, from 4.4 percent in 1978 to 18.4 percent in 1990, reflecting in part legal changes making it easier to vote absentee. Since the 1990s, mail-in ballots have increased exponentially.

Data expert Paul Mitchell

Data expert Paul Mitchell

In the 2008 primary, 58 percent of the voters cast mail-in ballots, the first time in a California statewide election that mail-in ballots represented more than half the vote. In primaries since then, mail-in voting has risen steadily to a remarkable 65 percent in 2012. In the November 2012 general election, mail-in ballots accounted for about 51 percent. A look at absentee voting patterns in California since 1962 is available here.

Similar voting patterns are expected this year.

California is among the 25 states that allow their voters to register permanently as mail in voters. As of 2012, 45 percent of California’s voters have utilized this option, also known as PAV (Permanent Absentee Voter), and others have a higher mail-in registration. In Colorado, for example, that number is up to 66 percent.

Vote-by-mail has been available in California for 90 years, originally to accommodate those voters unable to be present on election day — travelers, members of the armed forces and the ill, for example.

Many suggest that the attraction of mail-in elections lies in their reduction of cost while others note that it’s  the presumed higher voter turnout.

“If you’re interest is simply in increasing turnout, than it’s hard to think of a reason why going to more by mail elections wouldn’t help,” said Paul Mitchell, a veteran political strategist and technology expert. Mitchell is  a vice president of Political Data, Inc., a company that provides detailed information — demographics, fiscal profiles, labor and business impacts, projections, etc. — to political campaigns.

There is a strong correlation between changes in election laws and the rising numbers of voters choosing this convenient option.

Vote-by-mail has been available in California for 90 years, originally to accommodate those voters unable to be present on election day — travelers, members of the armed forces and the ill, for example.

But “no-excuse” vote-by-mail voting only started in 1979, during Gov. Jerry Brown’s second term.

“That was the point at which any voter for any reason could request a vote-by-mail ballot; the person did not need to have a medical excuse or be out of town on Election Day. Slowly, as voters learned of this convenience, more chose it,” said Winger.

In 27 states and Washington, DC, absentee voting without an excuse is allowed, but in 21 states, an excuse is still required to vote by mail.

Oregon’s all mail in voting system, the first of any state in the nation, was put into place in 1998. Although it has proved to be a huge money saver, some still express concerns about voting security. It has increased voter turnout, however, which in 2004 was the fifth highest in the nation.

Meanwhile, both Oregon and Washington are far above the curve by utilizing all mail voting. Starting this year, Minnesota will become the 18th state to allow no-excuse absentee voting.

In Washington, by 2000 some 54 percent of voters cast mail-in ballots; by 2006,  the figure grew to 88 percent. Washington allows each county to decide if their elections should be all mail, and as of 2009, all but one county was converted to all mail voting. Even in the one county still offering poll voting, mail voting comprised at least 90 percent of the votes cast.

In 2011, mail-in voting  was made state law. Washington officials said voter turnout increased in tandem with the growing popularity of mail-in voting from 2002 through 2006. They also said participation jumped 12 percent when a specific county switched to all mail voting.

Oregon’s all mail in voting system, the first of any state in the nation, was put into place in 1998. Although it has proved to be a huge money saver, some still express concerns about voting security. It has increased voter turnout, however, which in 2004 was the fifth highest in the nation.

In California, two small rural counties – Alpine and Sierra – vote entirely by mail. For any or all of the rest of California’s 58 counties to go to vote by mail would require legislative and gubernatorial action.

And there are risks to mail-in voting. Many worry about the possibility for error, such as those which plagued Minnesota in 2008 when one in every thirty absentee ballots rejected by officials. Ballot errors are not uncommon, but those made on mail in ballots can be much harder to correct in time and therefore those votes go uncounted. There also are concerns about election delays caused by the longer processing time for mail in ballots.

“About half of the absentee ballots are sent in more than 10 days before the election, that’s the working average,” Mitchell said. “One of the things we do at PDI is we flag voters that always turn in their ballots early versus voters that always turn in their ballots late, and that’s also becoming a key thing for campaigns.”

But that can cause stresses on election night as the public looks for returns.

“On the back end – election night – news media and campaigns tend to forget this trend, and still want to “call the election” shortly after polls close. Yet if more people are voting by mail than voting at polling places, and if those mailed ballots come in on the last day, county elections officials always need more days to process the ballots,” said Winger.

“The message that election officials, legislators, and advocates need to heed on all-mail voting is that the reform is not a one-size-fits-all solution for streamlining Election Day. Voting is a complex undertaking, and any reform must be scrutinized for all of its consequences—unintended and otherwise—not just bottom-line budgetary and administrative impacts,” wrote Project Vote’s Teresa James.

However, the question of whether mail-in voting improves turnout is not resolved.

A study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts said that although a majority of Californians choose to vote by mail, the percentage of nonvoters was unlikely to change. The study concluded that when a vote-by-mail system is enforced, the chances of the individual voter voting decrease by 13.2 percent. The odds decrease by 50 percent for urban voters, 30.3 percent for Asian American voters, and 27.3 percent for Latino voters.  The study also says the odds go up by 3.8 percent for each year the voter ages, and that Democratic voters’ odds increase by 5.99 percent over Republicans’.

Project Vote cites this study when encouraging caution implementing an all vote-by-mail system. “The message that election officials, legislators, and advocates need to heed on all-mail voting is that the reform is not a one-size-fits-all solution for streamlining Election Day. Voting is a complex undertaking, and any reform must be scrutinized for all of its consequences—unintended and otherwise—not just bottom-line budgetary and administrative impacts,” wrote Project Vote’s Teresa James.

Not everyone is persuaded.

“There’s a direct correlation between turnout and being a PAV,” Mitchell said.“The data shows that even if you’re looking at a low income Latino voter in an apartment in Alameda county versus L.A. county, if they’re a PAV they’re just simply more likely to vote.”

As of February 2013, the combined total of no party preference and third party registered voters made up for 27.2 percent of California voters, just shy of the Republican party’s 28.9%, but still far off from the Democratic party’s 43.9%. This trend might make it more difficult to predict elections, along with the increasing number of mail in voters. However, officials say that there is no connection between the two rising populations.

“There’s this real impact on young people, and there’s a real impact on old people. If they’re not a PAV, over 70, they’ll totally drop off in terms of turnout,” he added.

Traditionally, mail-in voting often was viewed as a partisan choice. Republicans were more likely to vote absentee as they were generally more likely to be wealthy, and therefore to travel. But as mail-in voting became more popular, it became a much less partisan choice.

Although the partisan divide is no longer substantial in PAVs, the number of no party preference and third party voters is rising and with it increasing difficulty to predict elections.

As of February 2013, the combined total of no party preference and third party registered voters made up for 27.2 percent of California voters, just shy of the Republican party’s 28.9%, but still far off from the Democratic party’s 43.9%. This trend might make it more difficult to predict elections, along with the increasing number of mail in voters. However, officials say that there is no connection between the two rising populations.

Pollsters have targeted the rise of vote by mail.

“Precinct voters will include a somewhat larger proportion of Democrats than Republicans (44 percent to 31 percent) than those voting by mail (44 percent – 37 percent). Non-partisans will account for about 25 percent of the precinct vote but a smaller share (19 percent) of the mail vote,” according to a Field Poll just before the November 2012 election.

LA is bigger than the Bay Area, but in terms of voter turnout in a primary, because of the low absentee rates in LA county, LA is actually smaller than the Bay Area in turnout,” said Mitchell, who specializes in voting trends.

The poll 58 percent of mail-in voters are 50 years or older, whereas this age group only accounts for 44 percent of precinct voters. “Compared to mail ballot voters, precinct voters include a slightly larger proportion of voters from households where a union member or children under 18 reside.”

Another significant statistic, 72 percent of mail in voters are white non-Hispanic, while the precinct statistic is 65%. “By contrast, Latinos comprise a larger share if those voting at their local polling precincts (22 percent) than those using a mail ballot (16 percent),” the Field poll noted.

Many argue that the partisan divide is not the important one, as it used to be. Instead, they say, it’s county lines that are being scrutinized for this divide in mail- in voters.

“If you’re running statewide for governor and you’re the former mayor of Los Angeles, and LA doesn’t vote in as high numbers because less of them are absentee, it has this impact on the races. And you can see all our statewide officers…are from northern California… LA is bigger than the Bay Area, but in terms of voter turnout in a primary, because of the low absentee rates in LA county, LA is actually smaller than the Bay Area in turnout,” said Mitchell, who specializes in voting trends.

“In [2013] the two regions combined have over 8 million voters and account for 2 million voters in the Primary election. Of this 8 and 2 million… Among registration: LA is 59% and [San Francisco Bay Area] is 41%. But in the Primary it is flipped…. SFB is 56 percent and LA is 44 percent. LA went from being 18-points larger to 12 points smaller – a 30-point switch in power over the electorate… LA Area goes from being dominant to being behind in almost all categories,” he added.

Voting by mail may not be the solution for all of California’s problems, but it certainly makes a difference in terms of turnout, which is key in may elections.

“The things that are likely to increase somebody’s voter turnout are older, richer, and PAV, and we can’t make people old or rich, but we can make them PAV,” Mitchell concluded.


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