I. In Focus This Week
Voters give vote-by-mail the stamp of approval
A Q&A with San Mateo County’s Mark Church
San Mateo County, California recently completed its first countywide all-mail election and by all accounts, the election — part of a pilot program for the state of California — was very successful.
Assembly Bill 2028 was approved in 2014 allowing San Mateo to join Yolo County in conducting countywide elections all by mail up to three times before 2018 as part of a pilot program. Under the legislation, every registered voter to received a ballot in the mail along with a ballot return envelope with prepaid postage.
Although prior to the passage of the legislation the majority of San Mateo voters were already casting their ballot by mail conducting the election solely by mail was a major shift and required extensive voter outreach.
Electionline virtually sat down with Mark Church, the county’s chief elections officer & assessor-county clerk-recorder this week to chat about his office’s experience.
Overall, how do you feel the first all-mail election went in San Mateo County?
Excellent. The November 3rd, 2015 All-Mailed Ballot Election went smoothly and was a complete success. Without a doubt, the election was one of the most efficiently conducted local consolidated elections held in the county's history.
Turnout was up from two years ago. Did you think it might be higher than it ultimately was or were you pleased with the number?
We were very pleased that there was significant increase in voter turnout and the number of voters who participated in the election. We anticipated an increase in voter turnout as a result of our extensive outreach efforts. The actual numbers were quite remarkable. A total of 105,341 ballots were cast in this election. This is an increase of 14,000 ballots (15 percent) over the previous local consolidated election held in 2013.
Voter turnout reached 29.5 percent, an increase of 4 percent over the 25.4 percent turnout in 2013. These numbers are impressive given the historical downward trend of voter participation locally and in the State of California for local elections.
Although San Mateo had large percentages of vote-by-mail voters in the past, what was the most challenging thing for your office in the transition to all vote-by-mail?
In order for an All-Mailed Ballot Election to be successful, an extensive voter outreach and education program must be initiated and continued through the complete election cycle. This requires the allocation of significant staffing and fiscal resources. While these efforts are challenging, voter education and outreach is one of our most important responsibilities as election officials. As is evident by our increase in voter participation across all demographic groups, the investment in voter outreach and education was key to the success of our All-Mailed Ballot Election.
Were there any things that you learned from this all-mail election that you will be able to apply to future all-mail elections moving forward?
First, voter outreach and education is an essential component for all elections. This is true irrespective if the election conducted wholly by mail or a traditional polling place election.
Second, 97.5 percent of all the ballots cast were returned by mail, or dropped off at our Voting Centers, Ballot Drop Off Locations and Universal Polling Places. Approximately 2.5 percent of all votes cast were cast at the Universal Polling Places. This indicates that fewer polling places may be needed when conducting an All-Mailed Ballot Election.
Third, a successful All-Mailed Ballot Election requires a collaborative effort between participating jurisdictions, elected officials, community based organizations and the local media.
Fourth, and perhaps one of the most important components of a successful All-Mailed Ballot Election, is the recognition that planning and partnering with the local and regional United States Postal Service (USPS) is vital to the success of the election.
Did anything surprise you (good or bad) about the process?
There were no major surprises. We can credit that to an extensive planning process that addressed many of the potential problem areas in advance.
Your office did an incredible amount of outreach to voters, but did you get any confused/angry phone calls on Election Day from folks wondering where to vote?
The calls we received were very minimal. As expected, there were a few voters who were not clear on where or how to participate in the election on Election Day. But with so few voters voting at the polls, these issues were minimal.
Even if you don't have the final numbers yet, how much money do you think your office will save by conducting all-mail elections?
We will have these final figures calculated by the end of January. However, we expect decreased costs as compared to a traditional countywide election. In a traditional election, we hire and train some 1,700 precinct voters, deploy and test over 1,400 voting machines and secure 209 polling places.
In our All-Mailed Ballot Election, we hired approximately 150 workers and reduced our polling places to 32 Universal Polling Places countywide. As a result, we expect some significant savings, but it is too premature to project those savings at this time until we receive all invoices and calculate our labor costs to conduct the election.
San Mateo County was part of a pilot program, will you recommend to the secretary of state's office and legislators to move forward with vote-by-mail statewide?
Absolutely! With increased voter turnout, lower election costs, quicker results on Election Night and increased efficiencies, San Mateo County has proven that an All-Mailed Ballot Election, properly conducted, is a model on how future elections should be conducted in California.
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