Increasingly, California voters use the mailbox, not the ballot box.
But in three of California’s 58 counties — Plumas, Alpine and Sierra — there was no other choice but mail-in voting. And they like it that way.
By the eve of California’s June 7 primary election, at least 10.3 million absentee ballots had been mailed out to voters across California, representing well over half the total number of the state’s nearly 18 million registered voters.
In Sierra, Alpine and Plumas counties almost all the voters mailed in their ballots, except for a few who dropped off their ballots at a courthouse or county office.
It’s not known – yet — how many people who received those ballots actually voted, the secretary of state’s office said. The official certification of the vote is scheduled to be released July 15.
But the trend toward more mail-in balloting has accelerated dramatically over the past 50 years. Two years ago, nearly 70 percent of California voters used mail ballots in the June 2014 primary, a non-presidential election year. In June 1966, fewer than 2 percent did.
It’s unclear if there is a positive link between the use of mail-in ballots and the level of voter turnout — although advocates say a fundamental goal in encouraging mail balloting is to improve voter turnout.
But as mail-in balloting becomes more popular, issues arise, especially in counties with large populations.
Signature verification is labor intensive and takes time, and standards vary from county to county. In some counties, mail-in ballots carry first-class, pre-paid postage, in others no. Ballots may be placed in the wrong envelopes, or sent in unsigned, or sent late In 2014, California had a rate of ballot rejection of 1 percent to 3 percent, high compared with many other states, said Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation.
“It’s a good idea to get ballots to voters ahead of time, but we need to do a much better job getting them returned,” Alexander said, “and there is a huge amount of confusion among voters.” In Sacramento, for example, the registrar sent out letters to more than 900 voters who had submitted unsigned or flawed ballots, asking them to correct the ballots and return them. Nearly 480 did so.
The use of mail-in ballots is driven partly by cost savings, partly by convenience, partly by the wishes of the public and partly by topography and distance.
In the sparsely populated counties of Sierra, Alpine and Plumas, almost all the voters mailed in their ballots, except for a few who dropped off their envelopes with the c0mpleted ballots at a courthouse or county office.
Officials in the three counties said Election Night went smoothly.
In Plumas County, for the first time, voters cast ballots solely by mail in a presidential election.
In Sierra County, which-approved all mail voting 11 years ago, people voted by mail for the third time in a presidential race. Some 84.9 percent of the county’s 2,613 eligible voters are registered – the state’s highest percentage after Nevada County.
And in Alpine County, the smallest of California’s 58 counties with a population of about 1,160, some 717 of the county’s 950 eligible voters were registered to vote on June 7, or about 75 percent.
“We were done counting by 10 p.m., “ said Alpine County Clerk Teola Tremayne, who serves as the county’s elections officer.
The use of mail-in ballots is driven partly by cost savings, partly by convenience, partly by the wishes of the public and partly by topography and distance. In rugged, rural counties with scattered pockets of population, maintaining convenient, well-staffed walk-in precincts can be difficult — and expensive.
“From my perspective, I thought it went real smoothly,” said Debra Moore, the managing editor of the Plumas County News. “We didn’t receive any letters to the editor that I can recall complaining.” Some older voters experienced a sense of nostalgia because they missed being able to vote in person at a precinct, she added.
In this year’s primary, Plumas County did a media blitz prior to the election to alert the voters about the mail-only primary.
Voter turnout often is higher in rural counties than in counties with large urban populations — although there are plenty of exceptions. (For a national discussion of rural vs. urban voting, click here.)
But the larger question of whether turnout is affected by mail-in voting is still being debated.
“We have of course looked at it from an engagement perspective, whether it will increase turnout, and it’s a bit of a mixed picture. Both Oregon and Washington have all vote by mail, and it increases the turnout of those who are already likely to vote,” said Mindy Romero, of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis.
“But you want to increase the turnout of everybody, and you want to make sure that with any type of reform you are not widening the gap. If you increase turnout, you want to do it across the board at the same rate,” she said.
In 2012, about 59.2 percent of Sierra County’s 2,247 registered voters actually cast ballots — the highest turnout in the state. Close behind was Alpine County, with participation from about 58.6 percent of that county’s 813 registered voters. Both counties were entirely mail-in ballots.
In Sierra County, residents have been doing mail-in voting for 11 years.
In Plumas County, where about three-fourths of the electorate that year voted by mail, the turnout was about 50.9 percent of the county’s 12,894 registered voters, according to figures from the state elections officer. The 2012 elections marked the first time that more than half the electorate used mail-in ballots.
By comparison, the turnout in June 2012 of registered voters in Los Angeles County, then home to 4.6 million registered voters, was 21.8 percent, the lowest in California: Nearly four out of five registered voters stayed home. In Alameda County, the turnout was 31.8 percent, and in Orange County, with more than 1.6 million registered voters, only about 26.5 percent bothered to cast ballots.
In this year’s primary, Plumas County did a media blitz prior to the election to alert the voters about the mail-only primary. “We made sure that everybody knew what our plan was before we did it,” said Clerk-Recorder Kathy Williams. “We did get feedback. Most said, ‘Well it’s about time you did that.’ Some said, “we’re going to miss polling places’ because it’s a social event in a rural area.”
But, she added, “it was better for everybody overall.”
Some questions were raised, however.
Tracy Ingle, a politically active Greenville resident, said she was unaware until late in the election cycle that she would not be able to physically vote in a precinct.
“We are a rural county, and it’s only fair and right to have a polling station,” she said. She also felt there was a lack of information in the ballot materials sent out prior to the election about obtaining a crossover ballot.
“That part wasn’t handled right. Our elections office has lots of integrity and there are checks and balances, but if they choose to go to mail only, they need to have the right information,” Ingle said.
In Sierra County, residents have been doing mail-in voting for 11 years.
“We were reaching over 50 percent of permanent absentee voting,” said County Clerk Heather Foster. “From a fiscal standpoint, it made sense to designate all of them (precincts) vote by mail, because we saved a lot of money.”
When the proposal was first made to go mail-in only, “ we did a poll and we had a real high percentage in favor of it. To this day, the majority of voters are in favor of it,” she added.