Absentee voters a majority for first time

For the first time ever, in the June 6 primary election a majority of San Mateo County voters cast their ballots via the mail rather than in person, a development that has prompted elections officials to renew calls for legislation allowing all-mail elections.

With about 72,000 voters, or nearly 56 percent of those casting ballots, voting by mail, the county could increase turnout and save money by focusing on absentee voting, San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum said Tuesday. Only about 56,000 voters went to the polls, 16 percent of the county’s 350,305 total registered voters, according to numbers certified yesterday.

Slocum said he hoped to see mail-in ballots combined with universal voting centers for those, such as the disabled, who might not be able to vote via mail without their civil rights being infringed upon. Slocum and officials from other counties tried earlier this year to win legislative support for an all-mail ballot, but the bill failed despite vocal support from Secretary of State Brue McPherson.

“The combination of those two ideas is a powerful reform,” Slocum said, noting that with turnout at barely 37 percent of all registered voters in the county, the county and state wasted money and time providing nearly 720 different paper ballots to polling stations.

It is that wasted cost that also has Slocum leaning toward using all-electronic polling machines rather than a mixture of electronic machines and paper ballots on Election Day.

If the county went all-electronic, Slocum said, they would need 2,500 machines, costing approximately $12 million. A mixture of 500 electronic machines and new paper ballot machines would cost $7 million. A decision, he said, will be made in early July.

Gubernatorial primaries traditionally have lower turnout than other even-year elections, said County Elections Specialist Mark Numainville.

The trend toward absentee voting is also changing campaign strategies by expanding the time period during which voters are paying attention to the races and requiring candidates to focus specifically on those voting from home, according to political observers.

“It’s changing how you campaign effectively,” said Corey Cook, a political science professor from San Francisco State.

Cook, who voted absentee, said that on Election Day he received four mailers, which were ineffective because he had cast his ballot two weeks earlier.

Jim Stearns, a local political consultant, said the increasing absentee population “really moves up the timetables of the elections.”

“You need to spend money earlier, and it benefits a campaign that gets out early,” Stearns said.

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