Monday, June 9, 2008

Low turnout as most vote by mail

As widely predicted, voter turnout sank to a record low watermark Tuesday as a paltry fifth of the state's registered voters cast ballots.

But the vast majority of those who did vote opted for mail-in ballots rather than going to the polls.

The lopsided results are fueling talk of running mail-only elections at times of scant voter interest.

"I had polling places where 36 voters showed up," said Contra County Registrar of Voters Steve Weir, also president of the state association of election clerks. "We now know that any election following a bifurcated presidential primary, like it could be in June 2012, we ought to consider making it a vote-by-mail-only election."

In Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties, the use of mail-in ballots is expected to top 70 percent by the time election officials complete their tallies.

The high percentage of voters who cast mail ballots was entirely expected, said California Voter Foundation President Kim Alexander.

Of the state's 16 million registered voters, between 3 million and 4 million "vote in every single election and they vote in far higher numbers by mail," Alexander said. "It makes perfect sense that in a low-turnout election, we would see very high numbers of people who vote by mail."

The growing ranks of independent voters who eschew party registration has also drained interest in primaries, where parties select their nominees, Alexander said.

"Almost 20 percent Advertisementof the state's voters are decline-to-state and they literally didn't have a dog in this fight," Alexander added.

The vote-by-mail phenomenon poses a logistical and financial challenge for counties that must simultaneously staff and fund full precinct-voting operations while processing mail-in ballots.

The three counties' 1,524 polling places saw an average of 87 voters per polling place Tuesday.

"It was roughly two-to-one in favor of mail-in ballots here," said Alameda County Registrar of Voters Dave Macdonald. "It's very expensive to staff a polling place and have only a few people show up."

It costs about the same to staff a polling place that sees five voters or 5,000 voters, Macdonald said. And it's more difficult to recruit poll workers when they may end up sitting around for 12-plus hours with relatively little to do.

On the other hand, the June statewide primary was highly unrepresentative of a typical election.

Stripped of its presidential primary, the lackluster Tuesday election had two dueling statewide propositions on eminent domain — hardly a water-cooler issue — and a handful of hotly contested congressional, state and local contests.

It just wasn't enough to whet voters' appetite to vote.

Turnout results as of Friday ranged from 24 percent in Alameda County to 29 percent in Contra Costa and 26 percent in Solano. Statewide, turnout was 22.5 percent, or 3.6 million out of 16 million registered voters.

These percentages could rise 3 to 4 points after county election officials complete the tally of mail ballots dropped off at polls Election Day and provisional ballots.

Polling places also serve as drop-off points for people on Election Day who voted using a mail ballot but didn't mail it. It takes staff additional time to verify the signatures and add ballot results to the totals.

Conditions will swing wildly the other direction in the November general election, however, where the selection of the U.S. president and a slew of statewide initiatives will draw an anticipated record number of voters of all kinds. Election officials expect turnout could top 80 percent.

Even as everyone's attention shifts to November, people will continue to complain about voter apathy in nonpresidential elections, and for good reason.

In some races, a few thousand voters select members of the state Senate or Assembly who will represent tens of thousands of people on critical issues such as the state budget, health care or the water supply.

Alexander, founder of the Voter Foundation, says there's been little incentive to boost the numbers. Over the years, some have even suggested a minimum voter participation threshold in order to enact new laws or elect leaders.

But not everyone wants big turnouts, no matter what they may say for public consumption.

Local governments and school districts with bonds and parcel tax proposals intentionally place measures on the ballots of low-turnout, low-profile elections, where it's easier to attract only the voters who support their initiatives. New taxes require a two-thirds voter approval, a difficult number to achieve.

Candidates, meanwhile, spend millions of dollars to bring out their supporters and have no reason to care about the rest of them.

And regular voters often resent the infrequent drop-in who may make a decision based on little more than a mailer or a yard sign, Alexander said.

It may be time for an overhaul, Alexander said.

"One of the things we've been looking at is a top-to-bottom review of California's election process," Alexander said.

  • &#39Imminent&#39 Recession May Cost NYC 59,400 Jobs
  • Housing Aid Bill Faces Veto by President Bush
  • Piepho’s strong mail-in response helps beat former boss
  • Low turnout expected for state primary vote
  • What if California held its presidential primary today?