Voting by mail? Most Californians have preferred it over in-person voting for years

By Teri Sforza,
San Jose Mercury News,
October 26, 2020


In the dramatic midterm elections of 2018, when the fate of the House and Senate hung in the balance and a new governor was about to be enthroned, two of every three votes tallied in California were cast via mail-in ballots rather than by in-person voting —even in the absence of a deadly pandemic.

By-mail voting has long played a dominant role in Golden State democracy, so the ballot-in-every-mailbox experiment currently underway is not so much revolution as evolution. But understanding the particulars of what happened to mail ballots in California’s 2018 election — how many were sent to voters, how many were never returned, how many were rejected and why? — can help prepare for an unprecedented Nov. 3, when counting commences on what may well be the weirdest Election Day in American history.

A Southern California News Group analysis of data collected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission revealed some surprising things:

In 2018, 13.8 million mail ballots were sent to voters and 8.3 million were returned for counting. That means 39% — some 5.5 million ballots — failed to make their way back to elections offices to be tallied. In Southern California, Los Angeles had the most trouble getting ballots back, with 51% unreturned. In San Bernardino, it was 46%; in Riverside, 38%; and in Orange County, 37%.

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Mail balloting has been a big part of California’s voting picture long before COVID-19. Since 2010, roughly half or greater percentages of voters have chosen to cast mail ballots in general elections. Statewide, 66% of ballots in the 2018 midterm were cast by mail, according to the EAVS data.

Much of Southern California, though, lagged behind the rest of the state: In Los Angeles County, only 44% of votes were cast by mailing 2018, while in San Bernardino it was 59.6%; in OC, 61.5%; and in Riverside: 69.3%

That millions of mail ballots were never returned shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

“We don’t have 100 percent turnout in any election. Many of these people are registered for permanent by-mail ballots — ‘When I vote, I prefer to vote by mail, but I don’t always vote.’ They’re still going to get a ballot for every election,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at UC San Diego, whose recent research found that the overwhelming majority of California voters favored mail-in ballots for this election, as well as a widening partisan divide over mail balloting.

Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University, said American elections often fail to propel more than 60 percent of registered voters to do their civic duty. “As a nation, we have the lowest voter turnout of any industrialized nation in the world, so mail ballots that are never returned are consistent with how many people don’t actually go to the polls on Election Day,” he said. “Some see it as one more piece of junk mail.”

And while some states move swiftly to remove inactive voters from the rolls, California leans in the other direction so as not to disenfranchise people.

“One reason why so many ballots go out and may not be used is because we make it hard to remove voters from the voter rolls,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. “Other states have much more aggressive purge laws; we have strict anti-purge laws.”

Today, more than half of California voters are registered as permanent, by-mail voters. As their ranks grow — something allowed by a 2001 law — the percentage of ballots that don’t come back has grown as well.

“This is a trend I’ve been watching, and it does concern me from a waste perspective that we’re sending ballots to people who aren’t using them,” Alexander said. “A lot of them probably get recycled. There is an optics concern, because voters don’t have a lot of understanding of what’s happening behind the scenes to process vote-by-mail ballots. But this is a very important point: Even though they’re not being used, they’re not being misused. There’s a lot of security built into the system. (Full Story)