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Blog Post · September 9, 2014

Improving the Vote-by-Mail System

For the first time in eight years, there is no incumbent running for California secretary of state. This offers a great opportunity to step back and consider where California’s elections are, and where they ought to go next. (You can hear what the candidates have to say about the future of elections at a PPIC event on Thursday, September 11.)

Any such assessment must take a hard look at voting by mail. We see more voters using this option in every passing election, with the growth actually accelerating in recent primaries. If the trend continues, about 57 percent of the ballots in this fall’s election will be cast this way.

The question is no longer whether vote-by-mail is a sensible way to run our elections; it is now how best to manage the vote-by-mail elections we already have. This has put a number of critical issues on the table:

  1. Signature verification. The signature on a vote-by-mail ballot must be compared to the one on file to ensure that the appropriate person cast the ballot. This slows down the process, leaving the outcomes of a few races in doubt for weeks after Election Day. Some counties have been moving to verification by computer to deal with the backlog, but the standards for this sort of verification are murky. The new secretary of state can help clarify which technology is permissible and how this technology should be used.
  2. Late ballots. In a recent PPIC report, we noted that, while the vast majority of vote-by-mail ballots arrive on time, thousands of ballots arrive late and are not counted at all. The legislature has passed a bill (SB 29) that would allow most of these late ballots to be counted. If Governor Brown signs this bill, the next secretary of state will need to monitor the new status quo as it unfolds. In particular, county registrars may face a surge in late ballots as more voters take advantage of the new relaxed standard.
  3. Shrinking postal service. As email and the Internet have grown in popularity, the U.S. Postal Service has been forced to lay off staff and consolidate processing centers. Our PPIC analysis suggests that these changes have not yet created problems for vote–by-mail, but it is a development that deserves constant monitoring.
  4. All vote-by-mail? When 70 percent of the ballots in an election are vote-by-mail, one wonders whether it’s time to abandon the old polling place approach and mandate the vote-by-mail system for everyone. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington use such a system, and it has generally worked well. There are a number of arguments for the change. The persistence of a dual system may add to the complexity of counting ballots, especially with yet another system—same-day registration—coming on-line in the next few years. Moreover, while the evidence for vote-by-mail’s effect on voter turnout is mixed, it generally suggests a small but positive effect. Finally, given the fact that county registrars continue to struggle with small budgets and increasing demands, an all vote-by-mail system would offer a much-needed cost savings.

We will probably never reach a point where every voter voluntarily votes by mail. There will always be some, both young and old, who prefer to show up at a polling place. But we must think carefully about accommodating the new reality of a mostly vote-by-mail system, and how best to make it work for everyone.


elections Political Landscape vote-by-mail voters