Analysis: Should We Look At Going to All-Mail Elections?


Davis has used all-mail ballots in the past – for special elections.  For instance, the March 6, 2012 Special Election for a parcel tax for DJUSD was an all-mail ballot.  The school district did it because the cost born on the county, passed through to the agency was lower than it was for a normal election where there are polling places open.

At the time, it required special legislation in order to hold all-mail elections.  However, as we pour over local data from the November Election, it suggests we might want to consider going to such elections permanently because the voters are voting with their feet, so to speak.

The data in Davis from last November is particularly stark.  According to data received from the Elections Office, 29,000 people votes in Davis in the November Election.  Of those, only 9336 of them, 32.2 percent voted at the polls.

That means that more than two-thirds of the voters voted by mail in this election.

County-wide even a higher percent of people voted by mail with around 52,000 people in the county voting by mail compared to 18,000 people voting at the polls.

An Associated Press story indicated that this year, five counties including Sacramento and Napa, are experimenting by sending mail ballots to all registered voters.  Their hope was that the number of people voting would increase and indeed California set records this year in November for mid-term voter turnout.

When we first reported on the issue of all-mail ballots back in 2010, it seemed that about forty percent of the vote was by mail.  However, by 2014 Primary, 69.4 percent of the ballots were by mail.  And analysts anticipated that 70 to 75 percent of ballots in California in 2018 would be cast by mail.

Given those numbers it seems reasonable to ask – at least locally if not statewide – why are we continuing to have voting at the polls.  I say that as someone who does go to the polls each year, but the numbers speak for themselves.

The Vanguard asked Jesse Salinas how much this would cost.  He suggests that we could use the current 113,000 registered voters “as an approximate base and the last vote by mail (VBM) cost of 68 cents as a reference point for just the postal cost.”

He did point out that the last election was just a one page ballot, “two page ballots are more expensive to mail, but we are unable to know that cost until closer to the election and how many candidates, local and state measures are on the ballot.  In addition, the cost of first class mail goes up periodically, such as the increase expected later this month, which is another variable cost.”

But that doesn’t completely get to the marginal cost.  The marginal cost of going to an all-mail ballot is the cost for mailing to that additional last one-third of the electorate minus the cost of having staffing and polling locations across the country.

We know that it is cheaper to mail than to have polling places because that is why DJUSD and the city of Davis did all-mail ballots – it was cheaper.

In 2011, when DJUSD had all-mail ballots for the parcel tax, Measure A, there was some pushback.

Columnist Bob Dunning wrote at the time, “So, we’re going to have an election like no other. A lab experiment with you and me as the guinea pigs.”

He continued, “Yes, the rumors are true. There will be no polling places on Election Day. Matter of fact, there will be no Election Day. Instead, we have an “Election Period,” during which we will be able to cast our votes. By mail. ONLY by mail.”

At the time, DJUSD figured to save $200,000 by going the all-mail ballot route.  And even then, nearly eight years ago, this was not a novel idea.

To illustrate just how rapidly mail ballots have grown.  In our article from 2011, we noted that in June 2010, county wide about 40 percent of voters are now either permanent absentee voters or routinely request absentee ballots, according to then County Clerk Freddie Oakley.  That was up from 30 percent in 2006.

A year later, when DJUSD put another parcel tax on a special election, the issue was revisited by Mr. Dunning.  So we sat down with Freddie Oakley so she could allay people’s concerns about ballot security.

“I would say that the likelihood of a conspiracy scenario is greater in the polling place,” she told the Vanguard.  History would prove her correct, with numerous problems occurring at polling places and with electronic voting machines.

She explained that there was a process where they visually compare the signature on the returned ballot to the signature in their records.  There is a process they go through if those signatures do not match, which includes the clerk reviewing and comparing the signatures. If there is still doubt, they actually contact the voter to make sure that it is his or her signature.

“Seven work days before the election we have staff working in teams – so they can keep an eye on each other – who will now open the envelope, remove the ballot, set the ballot in one pile and put the envelope in a trash bag,” Ms. Oakley told the Vanguard.

Where this conversation I think changes is that instead of 30 to 40 percent voting by mail, now you are looking at 65 to 75 percent voting by mail – people are already voting by mail, so the question is why are we leaving polling places open for such a small portion of the electorate?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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One thought on “Analysis: Should We Look At Going to All-Mail Elections?”

  1. Dianne C Tobias

    As one who has worked the polls a few times in recent years I have a couple comments:

    -the cost and organization of the materials and equipment plus the delivery to each precinct seems enormous.

    -many folks have mail in but like to put the ballot in the box and get a sticker. Why not have some staffed ballot boxes and stickers for those folks?

    -that said, in this last election our precinct had a significant number of voters who said they had registered yet weren’t on our or the county’s rolls or had moved or hadn’t gotten their vote by mail ballot. The first group had to go to Woodland and the last two had to fill out provisional ballots.

    All mail voting would disinfranchise some of those voters.

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