CA counties and cities push for all-mail elections

County clerks increasingly think all-mail elections will be more reliable and more widely participated in. But Legislature is moving cautiously.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

After all of the money spent, energy expended and ink spilled over electronic voting machines, it seems that there is a simpler way to vote that is more reliable and that could vastly improve participation: mail-in paper ballots.

The Orange County Register interviewed a number of elections officials who are increasingly ready to move to all-mail ballots.

Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, say a Contra Costa county election in 2004 had a low rate of rejected ballots and a turnout higher than that year's presidential primary.

"We're moving toward a tipping point," said the bespectacled county clerk. "We're beyond the state where you can just turn your head from it."

It's a move the voters are implementing themselves in any case. In November, nearly 42 percent of voters turned in absentee ballots. Of the state's 58 counties, 16 received more absentee ballots than votes cast directly at polling places.

The clerks association and the League of California Cities is lobbying the Legislature for a pilot program that would let counties test all-mail elections. The program is modeled on Oregon's, which has had state-wide ballot mailing since 1998.

"I think it's the absolute best way," said Al Davidson, a former clerk of Marion County, Ore., who is now an elections administration consultant. "It's like anything you can do on the Internet. You can sit in your pajamas, take all the time you need to study the issues, and read the voter pamphlet. ... You don't have that when you have five minutes in the voting booth."

But legislators have a serious case of cold feet. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said: "The last thing I want to do is mismanage an election we've never conducted before."

Oregon's path to mail voting was slow, starting with a pilot program in 1981 and finally approving it in 1998. Where the process has been pushed through, as in Arizona, it was roundly defeated. Perata says he's open to the switch, though. "Sooner or later, we're probably going to see everybody vote by mail because it's become so convenient and so necessary," he said.

But given the intense cynicism many voters have about American elections, in light of the 2000 and 2004 elections, state governments probably don't have 17 years to get voters' buy-in.

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