A story in the San Jose Mercury News has the seemingly odd title: “Snail Mail the solution to slow Silicon Valley vote totals?”
And it is an odd story–the reporter is trying to get at a point but has botched it pretty badly under some inaccurate quotes and incomplete understanding about the technology of processing mail ballots and peculiarities of California election law.
Let’s start with the quote, about voting by mail and turnout. I’m not quite sure if Tony Green, chief spokesperson for Secretary of State Kate Brown, said what the reporter said he said–the one sentence lead in just doesn’t jibe with Tony’s quote:
Advocates say all-mail elections boost turnout while avoiding the equipment and personnel costs of traditional polling places.
“Oregon had the highest turnout of any state in the country in November,” said Tony Green, spokesman for that state’s elections office. He said they usually have very strong turnouts that are credited to the ease of voting by mail. “You have mailing costs, but significantly lower personnel costs.”
The quote is all about mailing costs and personnel–but there is that (accurate) statement that Oregon had the highest turnout of any state in 2014. Is this attributable to voting by mail? If it is, that would be something of a surprise, since I have shown in numerous places (most recently here with my colleague Peter Miller) that voting by mail makes a slight contribution to Oregon’s turnout rate–at best a few percentage points.
Oregon’s demographics are what mainly contribute to it being a high turnout state. I haven’t look in detail at the 2014 data, but I’d be very surprised if the comparatively high turnout in 2014 was because Oregon comparatively has lower percentages of those groups (notably African Americans and Latinos) who turned out at comparatively lower rates in 2014.
In addition, Oregon had a number of high profile ballot initiatives, into which outside donors sank tens of millions of dollars that smashed previous records for such spending.
I’ve had great interactions with Tony, as I’ve had with all of the election officials in Oregon, but the more accurate statement would be that VBM has led to clean registration rolls, lower costs, and high levels of voter satisfaction, even if it does not translate into substantial increases in turnout, at least in federal contests.
But the real gist of the story in the Merc has to do with how ballots are cast and counted in California. California has a very liberal set of balloting procedures, put in place so that no citizen is disenfranchised just because they happen to drop a ballot at the wrong precinct, or drop an absentee ballot at the precinct place, and now even if they mail the ballot by election day (rather than delivering it by election day).
(Kim Alexander of the California Voting Foundation details the various procedures in this extensive report.)
The main reason that California has a slow count is that a) millions of California voters hand deliver their absentee ballots to the precinct place on election day. These ballots are not read through the optical scanner at the precinct place–they can’t because the signatures need to be verified, the ballots need to be separated from the ballot envelope, the ballots need to be inspected (and potentially “remade” or “remarked”–and this can only be done under the scrutiny of an elections board), and, finally, the ballots can be counted.
The technology referred to by the reporter, in place in King County, WA, can not speed up the tallying of ballots in the Valley if and until California were to go fully by mail. The reason Washington, and Oregon, and Colorado, and other fully vote by mail states can process their mail ballots quickly is because all counting is done at the central office.
There are not tens of thousands of precinct places with millions of unprocessed vote by mail ballots accumulating in “red bags,” waiting to be delivered to the county offices after polls close.
All in all, the story is a mish mash. “Snail mail” really has little to do with the question of the slow count, and vote by mail won’t solve California’s slow count unless they get rid of precinct place voting altogether. I don’t see that on the horizon.