Saturday, July 4, 2009

Grand jury urges mail-only elections for Sacramento County

By Sam Stanton
Published: Wednesday, Jul. 1, 2009 - 12:12 am | Page 1A

Imagine an Election Day without long lines, polling places or voting machines – one where there aren't any precinct workers to hand out those little "I voted" stickers.

For the Sacramento County grand jury, the issue is a simple one that would save the county $1 million in every election it conducts.

In a report released Tuesday, the grand jury called on county officials to seek legislation to allow future elections to be conducted entirely by mail, something local elections officials have been seeking for years.

"We can see that there has been a huge increase in our rolls of registered voters who choose to vote by mail," said Sacramento County elections spokesman Brad Buyse. "We have more people who vote by mail than in the polling place."

In the last election, for instance – the May 19 special election – 63.7 percent of the votes cast came in by mail in the county.

The trend toward voting by mail has been growing since state law was changed in 2002 to offer vote-by-mail to any voter who asked for it.

But the 2008-2009 grand jury, which addressed the issue in its final report Tuesday, said the county should seek legislation allowing all voting to be done by mail.

In Sacramento, the grand jury estimated, that could mean a savings of $1 million in each election because of reductions in expenses opening polling places, paying precinct workers and maintaining voting equipment.

"I think a lot of election officials in the state of California are frustrated," Buyse said. "It would be nice for state officials looking for cost-saving programs to turn to elections officials and ask them how to successfully run elections where there can be cost savings."

"We know how to save money," he said, "but they won't allow us to try to increase voter participation."

Election officials have been pushing for years to have the option of a countywide mail-only vote, but have been unsuccessful in fighting arguments from both ends of the political spectrum that oppose such a method.

Some groups contend voting by mail increases the possibility of voter fraud, while others argue that lower-income individuals who move more frequently may be disenfranchised because their ballots may not always reach them.

"We support the continuation of precinct voting in California because it's clearly the preference for the majority of voters in high-turnout elections," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "We are a very diverse state, and some voters clearly prefer to vote by mail and others clearly prefer to go to the polls."

So far, only two of California's smallest counties – Alpine and Sierra – have been granted permission to conduct all mail-in voting.

But elections officials point to Oregon and Washington as two states that have had huge success with vote-by-mail systems.

All of Oregon's voters now cast ballots by mail, and nearly all of Washington's do. The Washington Legislature passed a bill in 2005 giving that state's counties the option to vote entirely by mail and only one county – Tacoma's Pierce County – decided against it.

David Ammons, spokesman for Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, said voter turnout has soared since the program began, with 85 percent of the state's registered voters casting ballots in last November's presidential election.

But California voters did nearly as well working with a tandem system of voting by mail or voting in polling places. In that election, 79.4 percent of registered voters cast ballots, with 58.4 percent choosing to do so at a polling place.

For now, some observers say vote-by-mail enthusiasts may have to wait until more information is available to see whether it is feasible in a state as large and diverse as California.

Yolo County registrar Freddie Oakley said she is backing legislation pending in the Assembly that would allow her to conduct three district elections in coming years completely by mail and to use the results of those votes to gather data on how well the system works.

"I would love to have an opportunity to hash it out, have some special hearings in the Legislature and sit down over the course of a few days and brainstorm what folks think the problems are and what registrars think the problems are," Oakley said.

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