Aiming to go all-mail for special congressional election

With the support of our county Board of  Supervisors, we’re aiming to conduct the April 8 Special Congressional Open Primary Election entirely through the mail.

Pitney Bowes Relia-VoteThis is a novelty for California, and one we believe has the potential to save taxpayers money and increase voter turnout for this one-time, district-specific race.

The election was called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill the seat for the 12th Congressional District that was vacated by U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos after his death on Feb. 11. The district encompasses a good portion of San Mateo County and part of San Francisco. Read more about the basics of the election in our previous post.

So we’re in the throes of solidifying a bill author, formulating bill language and seeking approval from the state legislature and the governor to conduct a pilot all-mail election, using this special race as our test case.

Our argument goes something like this:

There are 255,749 registered voters in the 12th Congressional District, with nearly 40 percent of them already permanent Vote by Mail voters. Furthermore, of the 383 precincts in the district, about 10 percent of them are designated as All-Mail precincts (Voters in those precincts vote through the mail largely because there is no facility within their precinct that meets accessibility requirements for a physical polling place).

Turnout for special elections is typically very low – we are lucky if we get 30 percent. We are further concerned that, with three major elections this year – the Feb. 5 Presidential Primary, the June 3 Statewide Direct Primary, and the Nov. 3 General Election – that voter and poll worker fatigue could set in by requiring a fourth trip to the polls in the span of ten months. 

Voters who Vote by Mail in San Mateo County have a participation rate of 70 to 85 percent, and we believe that an all-mail ballot process might further increase participation. Participation rates of registered voters who vote in person tend to hover around 40 to 50 percent. To further encourage participation, ballot envelopes will be postage paid, meaning it will cost voters nothing to return their ballot other than a trip to the mailbox.

To conduct the April 8 Special Congressional Open Primary at the polls will cost taxpayers about $1 million. We believe we can cut the cost down to $650,000 with an all-mail election. This is worth giving a second thought at a time when the state has a $16 billion budget deficit that is jeopardizing county programs. Every dollar saved helps.

For those concerned about accessibility for the disabled for those for whom English is not their first language, we offer these additional measures:

We will only print one version of the Sample Ballot & Official Voter Information Pamphlet and the official mail ballot, which will be in three languages (English, Spanish and Chinese). This will save on paper and printing costs, and eliminate the usual extra step for voters of having to request separate materials in Spanish or Chinese.

Accessible eSlates that comply with the Help American Vote Act will be available at two locations in San Mateo County for the entire 29-day period before Election Day, guaranteeing disabled voters the opportunity to cast a secret ballot independently. Furthermore, any voter, not just disabled voters, may vote on the accessible eSlate voting devices or drop off their voted mail ballots at these locations during this period.

For the fraud worriers, we remind you that voters must sign and date their Vote by Mail ballot envelope (hidden under a security flap). The signature on each Vote by Mail ballot envelope is then compared with the signature on a voter’s registration affidavit before counting his or her ballot.

Using the Track & Confirm feature on our Web site, voters can also track when their ballot was mailed to them and when their voted ballot was received by the Elections Office .

We’ve already lined up support for our proposal from the League of Women Voters and the California arm of the National Association of Letter Carriers, and are working to educate legislators and other interest groups as we write. 

Because of the printing deadlines for ballots, the legislature and the governor must approve our proposal by March 1 (a two-thirds vote of the legislature is required). The proposal will be part of the Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda Tuesday.

It’s important to note that this proposal does not promote the widespread use of Vote by Mail in the state. It is a pilot project for a special one-time circumstance affecting only the 12th Congressional District, which we think has the potential to yield better turnout and cost savings.

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23 responses to “Aiming to go all-mail for special congressional election

  1. Update: We were not successful in our bid to make the April 8 Special Congressional Open Primary an all-mail election. We’ll give credit to the San Mateo Daily News, which said it better than we could have:

    “Mail-only special election idea dies: Political support lacking for the cost-saving move to fill Lantos’ empty seat.”

    That is, in fact, exactly what happened. We are very grateful to state Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, for his willingness to carry the bill and for the attempt he made to garner bipartisan support. Read more in our previous post about why we thought an all-mail election was a good idea to save money and increase turnout.

    So we’ll be holding a regular election on April 8.

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