Ballots: Check yes or no, return to sender

Gilroy
– It can be hard to find the mail that matters in an avalanche
of Valu-Paks, Victoria’s Secret catalogs and fliers for the new
Oakwood Country School, but sorting through a pile of solicitations
is more important than it used to be.
Gilroy – It can be hard to find the mail that matters in an avalanche of Valu-Paks, Victoria’s Secret catalogs and fliers for the new Oakwood Country School, but sorting through a pile of solicitations is more important than it used to be.

Twice in the last several weeks, Santa Clara County voters and homeowners have received special-election ballots in the mail; one to raise money for libraries and another to fight West Nile Virus. Those promise to be just the beginning.

For all the advances in election technology, the latest voting trend is decidedly low-tech and may be the one that really changes how we vote. And while mail-voting is presented as the most convenient way to cast a ballot, there is increasingly an ulterior motive at work: the mail-only ballot is a way for schools, libraries and every other variety of government agency to get ballots in the hands of voters most likely to approve parcel tax and bond measures.

“There’s a consistent trend of people taking advantage of absentee ballots,” said Terry Christensen, professor of political science at San Jose State University. “As absentee voting has become more popular, some states, counties and cities have been moving in this direction. It’s now being used to take advantage of a very narrowly specified electorate in hopes that it would be easier to pass a measure by mail rather than in a general election.”

That scenario played out this spring, as the county library system used an all-mail ballot to pass a parcel tax measure similar to one that had failed in the primary election a year before. The special election wasn’t a strategic move – had the library system waited for the general election in November, it would have lost a year of the $5.4 million in funding the measure provides – but library supporters were able to exploit the benefits of a mail ballot.

Morgan Hill City Councilman Steve Tate, member of the library system’s Joint Powers Authority, said the month-long voting window was integral to the measure’s success. Supporters spent weeks canvassing registered voters and then recalling those who pledged to vote yes.

“We felt it gave us an opportunity to target positive voters and spend a lot of time making sure they voted,” Tate said.

The all-mail ballot is catching on as a way to boost voter turnout, particularly in local, low-interest elections. John Lindback, director of the election division for the secretary of state in Oregon, said that turnout in single-issue elections in small municipalities there has risen from less than 10 percent to sometimes as high as 30 percent since that state went to mail-only ballots in the 1990s. California may follow Oregon’s lead. Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, has introduced a bill to experiment with mail-only ballots for all elections through 2010.

Santa Clara is not one listed in the bill, but Registrar Jesse Durazo said mail-voting is quickly happening on its own.

“In future elections, jurisdictions that want major turnout are going to turn to special elections using absentee ballots,” Durazo said, predicting that half of county voters will use absentee ballots by 2008.

But a major advantage of a special, all-mail election is that a low turnout of voters with a strong interest in the issue makes it easier for supporters to rally the votes they need. Charles Heath, a consultant who worked on the library campaign, said that schools and libraries are good candidates because they are usually uncontroversial.

“I think a circumstance where you want to look at a special election is when you have a school district with a core group of supporters,” Heath said. “If you know you can get those people to the polls in large numbers, then a special election makes sense.”

But the library’s campaign wasn’t entirely successful. Measure A, which assesses a parcel tax of $33.66 annually for 10 years passed with 72 percent of the vote, but Measure B, which would have levied an additional $12 tax received only 64 percent of the vote. Both required a two-thirds majority.

Bruce Altschuler, political science professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, said the same forces that work for special measures can also be used against them.

“The disadvantage of a special election is that a very low turnout makes it easier for a group trying to organize voters to vote no. Because these are such low-turnout elections it wouldn’t take a lot of additional voters to change the outcome.”

Altschuler said mail-ballots are beginning to alter the way campaigns are run.

“They change the dynamics of an election considerably. Candidates have to go out and campaign much earlier,” he said. “Traditionally, with limited funds you save your money for a last-minute advertising blitz. With people voting two weeks beforehand this isn’t a good strategy.”

Altschuler also warned that mail-balloting creates voter remorse.

“It means that someone may vote and make subsequent discoveries [about a candidate or issue],” he said. “People call up and want to change their vote.”

And, of course, special elections, mail or otherwise, don’t always work. A traditional parcel tax measure to fund schools was defeated in Milpitas in March. Just 468 votes would have swung the election the other way, but Milpitas school board member Marsha Grilli said Thursday that rather than pursue a mail-ballot, Milpitas officials are eying November’s general election.

“A special election didn’t work for us,” Grilli said. “We need to go out when there are more things on the ballot.”

Grilli said she thinks controversy surrounding mail ballots explains why Milpitas was the only city in the county to vote no on both library measures, but election analysts expect a proliferation of special and all-mail elections in the near future.

“Political leaders and consultants are always looking for winning strategies,” Christensen said. “This is a little bit different way to do an election. I think we’ll see it attempted much more frequently because of that.”

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