Our View: How about mail-only elections in the off years for Stanislaus County?

November 12, 2013 

Poll opens

The polling place at the Burchell Nursery east of Oakdale opened right on time at 7 a.m. Nov. 5, 2013, with only one voter waiting to cast a ballot. With only a school board election at stake, officials didn't anticipate much of an onsite turnout, especially with most people voting by mail.

JEFF JARDINE — jjardine@modbee.com Buy Photo

The turnout for last week’s election was, once again, pitiful.

Three polling places had just one voter. The turnout in one Modesto council district was under 10 percent. And countywide, about 22 percent of the registered voters cast a ballot. The percentage will jump slightly once the elections office finishes with the provisional ballots.

In the presidential election of 2012, by contrast, the voter turnout was 67 percent in Stanislaus County. Almost 70 percent of those who voted did so on a mail ballot.

In the 2009 all-local elections, 75 percent of the votes cast were on mail ballot. In 2011, the mail ballots accounted for 81 percent of the ballots cast.

The exact breakdown isn’t yet available for the 2013 election, but it will be high. It prompted Supervisor Vito Chiesa to ask, at Tuesday morning’s Board of Supervisors meeting, whether it’s time to consider all-mail elections.

We fully understand that some people just like going to the polls. Marking a ballot at home and putting it in an envelope isn’t the same experience as entering a voting booth. But operating dozens of polling places is costly. Poll workers have to be paid – even if they donate their money to a charity – and there’s the expense of moving and setting up the equipment.

So we’re going to echo Chiesa’s comment and take it a step further, suggesting that the county should review of the benefits and disadvantages of conducting odd-year elections by mail. The review should include the county, of course, and the cities of Ceres and Modesto, which elect council members in odd years. School districts are a mixed bag; some have moved their elections to even years, hoping for higher turnouts because voters are interested in presidential, statewide offices and state propositions.

The problem with moving all the small local elections to the even-year ballots is that the local races and measures will get lost in campaign hype over the state contests and propositions.

This change could not be made without serious study and jumping some hurdles, from getting buy-in from the agencies that participate in the consolidated election to eventual approval by the Legislature. In addition, Modesto likely would need to amend the city charter, which requires a vote of the citizens.

Stanislaus should watch the example being set in Yolo County, which two years ago received permission to try all-mail ballots in local elections. Yolo clerk-recorder Freddie Oakley told The Modesto Bee on Tuesday that the first experience with a mail-only election was in March 2012, with a bond measure in Davis. The turnout was a little more than 36 percent; the cost was substantially below what a traditional election would have cost. Oakley said the only problem was that actual ballots arrived at some homes before sample ballots/voter information guide. The mailings will be better coordinated for future elections.

The results from that Davis election are being analyzed to see whether certain demographic groups participated more than others. The study should provide useful information for Yolo and for other counties that might consider moving to all-mail elections. We hope Stanislaus will be among them for its off-year, local elections.

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