California’s election is three weeks away, but voters already are casting ballots—via mailbox, not ballot box.
Five counties—Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo—have done away with traditional polling places and are instead asking voters to send their ballots in the mail or leave them in a drop box or at a vote center.
In the June primary election, 67.7 percent of the 7.1 million ballots cast were sent by mail,
California counties that have switched to all-mail voting system are reporting mostly positive responses from voters.
Janna Haynes, communications and media officer for Sacramento County elections, said there’s not any downside to the new system. “You can still do everything you did before but easier and with more available days and times and locations.”
Voting by mail is becoming more popular throughout California. In the June primary election, 67.7 percent of the 7.1 million ballots cast were sent by mail, according to statistics kept by the secretary of state’s office. Ten years ago, only 41.65 percent of the primary election ballots were sent by mail.
Officials started mailing out ballots last week. For details of California’s vote-by-mail system, click here
The state Legislature authorized the five counties to try the all-mail system as part of the 2016 California Voter’s Choice Act. By 2020, all counties will be able to offer all-mail elections if they choose.
Some vote centers are open 10 days before the election, which includes two weekends.
The goal is to get more eligible California voters to cast ballots, because currently, millions do not participate in elections. As of September, the secretary of state reported 19 million registered voters.
Switching to the all-mail system has come with some hiccups, Haynes reported.
Some Sacramento County voters didn’t pay attention to the change and showed up as usual to the polling place where they always had voted. Then they were upset to learn that the polling place was closed.
Some forgot to sign their ballots when they dropped it in the mail, Haynes added. The signature is important because it is how the county verifies that the person is registered to vote. But the county, like other counties conducting all-mail ballot voting, made calls to those people so they could get their ballot signed and their vote would count.
Many people also don’t understand how much is offered at the new vote centers. People can show up without a ballot and have theirs printed for them on-site. Some vote centers are open 10 days before the election, which includes two weekends. Many are open for extended hours.
Under the traditional system, voters were assigned to a specific polling place based on their ZIP code, and that was the only place they could vote. Under the new system, any voter can show up to any vote center, register to vote and vote all the same day. They can also vote over several days instead of just Election Day.
“We don’t want any confrontations at the vote center.” — Gregory Diaz
The vote centers also allow county elections staff to quickly resolve any problems at the time the voter comes in and drastically reduces the need for provisional ballots, said Nevada County Registrar of Voters Gregory Diaz. Provisional ballots are typically given to people who believe they are registered to vote but are listed on the rolls of their polling place.
In the past, Diaz’s office would accept 2,000 provisional ballots, but for the June election, they had only seven. Those seven people weren’t eligible to vote, but Diaz instructed his staff to give them provisional ballots anyway.
“We don’t want any confrontations at the vote center,” he said. “All seven of those people we knew they had voted before, but they wanted to vote. Those votes didn’t count.”
The only other difficult part about switching to the new vote system was an additional one-time expense of about $150,000 to upgrade software so the county can connect to the state voter registration system and getting new voting machines for those who prefer to vote in person rather than by mail. But since the county now has to manage only eight vote centers rather than 50 polling places, the new system should save the county $1.3 million next year, Diaz said.
In Napa County, the transition to all-mail ballots has been an easy one because almost 90 percent of its voters had been voting by mail already, said Registrar of Voters John Tuteur. The county made a big push to go from polling places to mail between 2006 and 2012 when it shifted some 26,000 voters to the mail system. Tuteur estimates that only about 4,400 voters complained about the change at the time. “Some 20,000 took the change in stride,” he said.