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California sees a surge in mail-in voting

Oldham is a Times staff writer.

Opting for the convenience of their kitchen table over a neighbor’s garage, nearly half of Californians are expected to cast their votes by mail rather than at a polling site on Nov. 4, marking a milestone shift in the practice of democracy, elections officials said.

At least 40% of the state’s registered voters already have decided they want to vote by mail, according to data compiled Friday by the California Assn. of Clerks and Elected Officials. The percentage is expected to grow as Tuesday’s deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot approaches.

California isn’t the only state where voters are eschewing a trip to the polls. A majority of voters prefer their mailbox over the ballot box in Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

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Twenty-eight states allow residents to vote by mail without the excuse -- sickness, disability, being out of town -- that traditional absentee ballots have required.

Retired newscaster Dan Avey of Studio City voted as soon as his ballot arrived earlier this month.

“If I were truly undecided about some issue, I would wait until election day,” said Avey, who marked his choices in the quiet of his dining room three weeks ago. “Now I don’t have to pay attention to the flood of ads and last-minute attacks. I can tune the election out.”

Los Angeles County -- the nation’s largest single voting district -- has the state’s lowest mail-in voting bloc, with 20.6% of registered voters. Dean Logan, the county’s registrar-recorder, attributes the lower percentage to a more complicated ballot than those in other counties. He said that Angelenos tend to enjoy their neighborhood polling places, but some experts said the county does not publicize mail-in options as much as others do.

Even so, Logan said, the county has registered 32% more people to vote by mail than it did in 2004 and will issue the state’s highest number of vote-by-mail ballots before Nov. 4.

Northern California counties have among the highest percentage of mail-in voters in the state: Mendocino at 74.3%, Santa Clara at 68.6%, Marin at 59.9%. So far, San Francisco has registered 40.6%.

The increasing popularity of voting by mail in California and elsewhere has prompted some election experts to question whether convenience should trump concerns about ballot secrecy, fraud and the complications of processing mail-in ballots. The growing debate is leading some registrars and voting-rights advocates to call for a renewed discussion about how far the state should go to promote voting by mail.

“Some would like to see California become entirely a vote-by-mail state,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan voter-education group. “I would suggest we take a closer look at it.”

Some experts said that residents who vote at home may be more susceptible to coercion by spouses, friends or co-workers to vote a certain way. They also worry that those who cast their ballots early could miss important campaign developments that might have changed their vote.

In the Feb. 5 presidential primary, for instance, some voters mailed their ballots in before John Edwards and other presidential candidates withdrew from the race.

Election watchers fear that ballots could become lost in the mail or arrive too late to be counted. To avoid this scenario, the Santa Barbara County registrar will send workers to pick up ballots at post offices the evening of Nov. 4.

Ballots can be sent by mail or delivered in person to the registrar’s office, or can be dropped off at a polling place in the county where the voter lives. In all circumstances, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 4 in order to be counted.

“After every election, in every county office, there are stacks of vote-by-mail ballots that aren’t counted because they weren’t received by the close of business on election day,” Alexander said. “It’s heartbreaking, because the voters don’t know that their ballots aren’t counted.”

In California, voting by mail has been on the upswing since 2002, when a state law took effect allowing residents to permanently mark their ballots at home. The trend further escalated this year when many registrars, in an effort to decrease congestion at the polls, launched aggressive publicity campaigns to entice residents to apply for mail-in ballots.

Nearly half of the state’s voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail this year. By comparison, 32% of voters used mail-in ballots in the 2004 presidential election and only 24% did so in 2000.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are pushing to require all states to offer voting by mail without an excuse by the next federal election.

“It’s really a very convenient process -- you get to vote in your home, you get to discuss it, you get to mail it in,” said Jesse Durazo, registrar of voters in Santa Clara County. “Going to the precinct, you have to leave your job, you have to get a baby-sitter, you have to find parking, you have to vote at night.”

This election, faced with a 143-page voter information guide featuring 12 statewide propositions and a 15-page supplemental guide -- which some voter-education experts have dubbed “practically impenetrable” -- many California residents relish being able to mark their ballots in phases at home, saving the most difficult issues for last.

Oregon led the way to the mailbox, doing away entirely with its polling places in 2000, after the passage of a voter initiative in 1998. Washington state is nearing 100% vote-by-mail.

The Oregon voting experience now includes voter-invented traditions such as “trick or vote” night on Halloween and voting parties at churches. Yet some lament the disappearance of the polling place as a fundamental, communal democratic ritual.

“I do admit some sort of nostalgia for the polling place,” said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center.

“I’ve seen wonderful ones in people’s garages with basketball hoops and snacks, where people wander in and they’re talking and it’s really special,” he said. “I saw that in Orange County and in Riverside and in Los Angeles. I’m still not convinced we haven’t lost something if we completely do away with those.”

Elections officials have a love-hate relationship with the trend, saying it allows them to process a large number of ballots ahead of time, but requires more resources.

The state’s 58 county registrars are divided over whether California should vote solely by mail, a move that would require legislative approval.

“Will California move in that direction in the near future? No way, the Legislature won’t stand for it,” said Contra Costa County Clerk-Recorder Stephen Weir, who asked lawmakers for permission to hold the primary election in his county by mail, and was turned down. “The only way it would move that way would be a voter-initiated initiative.”

The trend is also changing the way political campaigns are run, requiring operatives to spend more money to reach voters earlier. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the California primary on Feb. 5 largely because of a massive drive to convince older women to vote by mail, pundits said.

After the upcoming election, which is expected to break voting records, registrars expect more debate on voting methods.

“I would like to see some way to reduce the number of polling places,” in precincts where a large number of voters are permanently signed up to vote by mail, said Joe Holland, Santa Barbara County’s clerk, recorder and assessor. “Eventually you can see with this trend that something is going to have to give.”

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mailbox matters

Counties where voting by mail is more popular than going to the polls:

Inyo ...57.4%

Kings ...58.8%

Lassen ...59.4%

Napa... 74.6%

Mendocino ...74.3%

Monterey ...59.1%

Santa Barbara ...53.6%

Santa Clara... 68.6%

Sonoma ...65.4%

Tuolumne ...62.5%

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The mail-in voting bloc in five Southern California counties:

Los Angeles... 20.6%

Orange... 40%

Riverside ...41.2%

San Bernardino ...34.4%

Ventura ...40.1%

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Note: Percentages reflect totals as of Friday

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Source: County registrars

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Ensuring your mail-in ballot is counted:

Tuesday is the deadline to apply to vote by mail.

Mail-in ballots should be sent by Oct. 31 to ensure delivery by Nov. 4.

Mail-in ballots postmarked Nov. 4 will not be counted.

Ballots delivered by hand must arrive at a polling place in your county or at your county registrar’s office by 8 p.m. Nov. 4.

Your ballot must be accompanied by the signed secrecy sleeve, so that the registrar can confirm your signature is valid.

You can authorize a relative or a person living in your household to return the ballot for you. Check the back of the envelope containing the ballot for more information.

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latimes.com

/voterguide

Complete coverage and information about the election is available online.


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