Why don't more vote-by-mail voters actually, you know, vote?

Vote-by-mail ballots are trendy, but mailing them in? Not so much

When you head to the polls Tuesday to choose among the approximately 1,273 candidates running for county, state and federal offices, you'll probably be struck by how few of your neighbors are fulfilling their civic duty. There may be an innocent explanation for this: Almost half of the registered voters in California have their ballots delivered to them in advance so they can vote by mail.

According to the California secretary of state's office, county election officials have issued 8.8 million vote-by-mail ballots. With 17.7 million registered voters, that means 1 out of every 2  may already have made their choices and mailed them in.

The state makes it ridiculously easy to vote by mail, having eliminated the requirement years ago that such ballots go only to people who couldn't reasonably be expected to show up at their precinct. Downloadable forms are available from the secretary of state's website, or voters can request one by mailing in the form printed on the back of the sample ballot they received from the county election office. They can also apply to have a vote-by-mail ballot sent to them for every election.

The number of "permanent" vote-by-mail voters has skyrocketed over the last decade; they now make up more than 43% of all registered voters. All told, vote-by-mailers have cast roughly 60% of the ballots in the last four June elections, and about 47% in the subsequent November elections.

The only mystery is why the number of votes cast hasn't gone up with the increase in vote-by-mail ballots. With the exception of presidential primaries, voter turnout over the last decade has hovered around 33%. The growth in the ranks of vote-by-mailers hasn't moved the needle on turnout at all.

Really, how hard can it be to drop a vote-by-mail ballot in the mail? You don't even have to fuss with the weird little pens that they use in the Inkavote system.

The dispiriting implication of that statistic is that convenience isn't the issue when it comes to low turnout. Another bit of evidence in support of that conclusion is the huge number of people who receive but don't return vote-by-mail ballots.

Is it election fatigue? The belief that a single individual's vote doesn't matter in the process? The suspicion that there's no real difference among the candidates? An annoyance at having to vote on obscure offices that really should be filled by appointees, such as county assessor and state controller? The conviction that your chosen candidates are shoo-ins?

Some combination of those factors is probably at work. But those who don't vote are consigning important decisions about taxes, spending and policy to those who do. I'm in the latter group, which will be a scary prospect to some regular readers of Opinion L.A. What about you?

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World