County Clerk Responds to Charges of Election Bias

ballot-mailLast week we reported on the allegation by John Munn, the listed plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city’s water process, who wrote an op-ed a week ago arguing that “the election outcome was influenced by Yolo County Elections Office mailing procedures.”

Mr. Munn’s central point was “The biggest advantage of the Yes on I campaign turned out to be the County Elections Office mailing process that delivered voter guides containing the pro and con arguments a week or more after the ballots. As a result, the Measure I election was neither fair nor unbiased.”

The problem, and it is a problem, was that the sample ballots with the argument for and against Measure I were not mailed until February 4 (the same day ballots first arrived) with many people not receiving their ballots a week into the election.

He argues, “Support for Measure I began to fade as facts about the actual quality and sustainability of our current groundwater supply became available, along with increasing awareness of the enormous cost of the proposed surface water project, the non-competitive bidding process and long-term private operation. In fact, a majority of the votes received on the final day of the election opposed Measure I.”

But, as we noted, the argument that the arrival of the sample ballots with the arguments being paramount to the shift in the election seems misplaced.  More likely, the late organization of the No on Measure I effort and the fact that they only really gained traction with the filing of the lawsuit on January 31, five days before the ballots arrived, and the heavy barrage of anti-surface water columns from Bob Dunning is what led to the pattern shift that Mr. Munn notes.

This week, County Clerk Freddie Oakley responds to Mr. Munn’s charge of bias.

Ms. Oakley, while acknowledging Mr. Munn’s “angst” claiming “he was a dedicated opponent of Measure I, and his side narrowly lost,” nevertheless notes, “his claim that the proponents of Measure I were ‘greatly assisted’ by my office calls into question the integrity of my office and its administration of state election law.”

Freddie Oakley argues that this is a “shocking claim” and that it’s based largely on “speculation” about the impact of mail delivery of ballots and the official voter information pamphlet.  This, she says, “is unsupported by the facts.”

“My office administers elections in strict compliance with state law,” Freddie Oakley writs. “We hold elections when and how the law requires, and we make every effort to do so efficiently.”

She notes, “(John Munn) asserts that he had complained before about sample ballots arriving after actual ballots, and thus implies that my office is responsible for any gaps between postal delivery to voters of their actual and sample ballots with respect to Measure I, and thus that any resulting skew in the referendum is the fault of my office.”

According to Freddie Oakley, the law dictates when both ballots and sample ballots must be delivered.

She writes, “Sample ballots must be mailed in a window that begins 40 days before the election, and closes 21 days before the election; actual ballots must be mailed in a window that begins 29 days before the election, and closes seven days before the election.”

There are also practical parameters, as well.

“Actual ballots require maximum security to assure election integrity. They are individually addressed and coded by my office, and are delivered by us to the post office for first-class delivery on the earliest legal date,” she writes.  “Sample ballots – in this and, so far as I know, every other election in the history of the state of California – are printed and drop-mailed by the printer under a bulk-mail permit.”

Ms. Oakley claims, “While we do everything we can to make sure that the printer mails the sample ballots (or, in larger elections, the ‘Voter Information Guide’), we are often in competition with the other 57 counties in California, some much larger than Yolo County, and we don’t always get the special ‘first-out-the-door’ treatment that we seek and, as California’s Lake Woebegon, no doubt deserve.”

She acknowledges that they “could essentially guarantee simultaneous delivery of actual ballots and sample ballots by having the sample ballots shipped to us by the printer, and then addressing and mailing each of them for first-class postal delivery. But to do so would compound the expense of an election enormously.”

Ms. Oakley continues, “As Munn admits, the effect of differential postal delivery schedules would have been mitigated if the Measure I election had been a traditional vote-at-the-polls election. But the decision to ask for an all-postal election was made by the city of Davis precisely to reduce the taxpayer expense that Munn would now have me vastly inflate.”

She continues, “The only justification for substantially compounding the cost of conducting elections in the manner that Munn wants could only be hard evidence that the current bulk-mail system for delivery of sample ballots and voter information guides has a truly substantial impact on electoral outcomes.”

She adds, “It may be that sound public policy requires that the substantial added cost of first-class postal delivery of information material distributed at public expense is a necessary expense that must be borne in order for elections to be meaningful measures of voters’ wishes. But this very difficult judgment of public policy must be based on more than speculative, campaign-oriented readings of the last election’s tea leaves.”

“In my office, we do wish to know the impact of differential mail delivery, and have wished to know for some time,” Freddie Oakley continues. “In an effort better to understand this and other variables that may influence elections, specifically all-mailed-ballot elections, several years ago we began discussions with the Statewide Database of the Institute for Governmental Studies at Berkeley Law, the law school at UC Berkeley.”

She continues, “We have recently signed a contract with them. A team of sociologists, political scientists and election law experts are now undertaking our first joint study, which is of Measure I.”

Freddie Oakley concludes, “We will continue to do our best with respect to the problem that Munn finds vexatious, but strongly object to his unwarranted suggestion that our office ‘helps’ one campaign or another.”

Mr. Munn’s bottom line is: “The Yes on I campaign was greatly assisted by the Yolo County Elections Office. It is not possible to know if Measure I would have passed or failed in a truly fair election. But we can be certain that the vote against Measure I would have been greater and provided even less support for the enormous water rate increases that our five City Council members have now approved.”

As we noted last week, we agree with Mr. Munn that the Yolo County Elections Office should have provided the sample ballots on time.  Where we disagree is that there is any notion that the vote would have been greater had they arrived earlier.  Our read of the campaign environment is that the lawsuit Mr. Munn filed and Bob Dunning’s columns played a far larger role in narrowing the final margin.

Had they started right after the first of the year, would the no side have been successful?  I do not know, but I believe it would have been even closer than it was.

The elections office needs to fix this problem, because it is a problem, but we see no evidence that it changed the outcome or margin of the final vote.

We remain of the view that the idea of bias in this election due to the timing of the sample ballot and ballot arguments is preposterous.  We are not convinced that this had much impact at all.

We also recognize the real world issues of costs involved in getting ballot material to the voters.

At the same time, we largely find Ms. Oakley’s response to the legitimate concern about the timing to be unfortunate.

There are important questions that need to be addressed about all-mail ballots and we commend the County Clerk’s Office for allowing political scientists and trained methodologists to work on these questions – though we wonder why they would not have our own outstanding faculty and researchers get first crack at the data.

Nevertheless, one of the questions that should not impact policy has to do with the timing of the arrival of the election materials.  In other words, there is no legitimate reason for sample ballot materials to arrive one week after people receive their ballots, and that needs to be addressed regardless of whether it had even the slightest amount of impact on the outcome.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 Comments

  1. Mark West

    “[i]The elections office needs to fix this problem, because it is a problem[/i]”

    Both the ballots and the sample ballots were delivered within the windows required by State law. So what exactly is the problem you feel needs to be fixed, the law?

    “[i]We remain of the view that the idea of bias in this election due to the timing of the sample ballot and ballot arguments is preposterous.[/i]”

    So again, if it didn’t create any bias in the election, what ‘problem’ are you complaining about?

  2. David M. Greenwald

    “Both the ballots and the sample ballots were delivered within the windows required by State law. So what exactly is the problem you feel needs to be fixed, the law?”

    The state law undoubtedly is not taking into account the specifics of mail-only ballots, but if that’s where the change needs to occur, then so be it.

    “So again, if it didn’t create any bias in the election, what ‘problem’ are you complaining about? “

    I’m not complaining, I’m analyzing John Munn’s complaint and now Freddie Oakley’s response.

  3. medwoman

    I also am truly not seeing a problem here. The individual voter has the right to use as much or as little information as they wish in making their decision to vote on any given issue. In this case, if they wanted to read all the material that would become available with the mailing of the sample ballot, all they had to do was to wait for it to arrive. No one was forcing them to vote early. Is John Munn suggesting that it is the responsibility of the government in the form of the County Clerk’s Office to protect us from our own hasty decision making ?

  4. Mr.Toad

    “Ballot Arguments on the Water Initiative, Measure I”

    Published 12-8-12 on the Vanguard

    ” Rebutal Arguments on Measure I”

    Published 12-19-12 on the Vanguard

    Although I didn’t vote until well past when the voter guide came in the mail I didn’t need to read it because I had already read what was in it. In fact the arguments were published here along with 50 to 100 other articles. The notion that early voters would have been swayed had they read the official guide is insulting to the voters. A much more reasonable argument is that the people with the most awareness voted early because they had already made up their minds and required the information in the pamphlet less than the rest of the electorate.

  5. Matt Williams

    One of the striking aspects of the Measure I campaign was the absence of verifiable facts in the arguments. John Munn’s most recent argument continues that trend. It is driven by personal belief and speculation.

  6. Practical

    Each time I read John Munn’s OpEd I find myself thinking

    [img]http://media-cache-lt0.pinterest.com/192x/03/69/05/036905ef477044c30c2d8a0ccf8948c7.jpg[/img]

  7. Mark West

    DG: “[i]I’m not complaining[/i]”

    DG: “[i]The elections office needs to fix this problem, because it is a problem[/i]”

    Pardon me for taking your words at face value. Sounds like a complaint to me.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    My words were made for the purpose of analyzing claims made by John Munn and the response by Freddie Oakley. I discounted part of his criticism but agreed with that point. It would be like someone criticizing you as being cantankerous and corrupt and me writing that there is no evidence of corruption, but he can be cantankerous at times. Am I complaining about you or simply assessing someone else’s complaint?

  9. Mark West

    You state that there is a problem, and that it needs to be fixed, yet you are unable to identify what that problem is? The Elections office followed the law and a smart, proper method of controlling expenses for the chosen election method. What exactly do you think they did that is a problem that needs to be fixed?

    From my perspective David, you have not analyzed anything, you have simply regurgitated the unsubstantiated claims of a poor loser, and that is a problem that is worth fixing.

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