The Tucson Weekly reported last week that close to 77 percent of the ballots cast in Pima County were early mail-in ballots. The Skinny:

VotersIn Pima County, a total of 309,700 early ballots were mailed to voters. Of those, just 206,366 were returned, according to the county’s still-unofficial vote count. That means that only 66 percent of those who received early ballots sent them back in—a significant drop from general elections of previous years. In 2012, 81 percent of the ballots were returned; in 2010, the number was 80 percent. In 2008, it was 91 percent and in 2006, it was 88 percent.


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[T]he majority of voters still prefer voting early. Leaving aside the roughly 10,000 provisional ballots, somewhere around 58,000 voters cast ballots at the polls on Election Day, compared to the 206,366 who cast early ballots. That means close to 77 percent of the ballots cast were early ballots.

The election equipment in Arizona is breaking down from age and use, and needs to be replaced with new equipment. The problem is there are few election equipment vendors left, the new equipment is not certified and is expensive to buy.

The Tucson Weekly reported:

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that the county’s machinery is in rough shape, which delayed the vote count. Huckelberry told the Pima County Board of Supervisors in a memo that two of the county’s seven central tabulating machines, which count most of the ballots, broke down during the vote count this year.

Huckelberry also said the machines rejected a higher number of ballots this year, “which continues to confirm the necessity of voting equipment replacement.”

Given the high participation rate for early vote-by-mail in Arizona — 77 to 91% in Pima County, for example — it would make financial sense for the state of Arizona to go to an all-mail balloting election. Most local elections are already conducted by all-mail balloting in Arizona.

The State of Oregon approved all-mail balloting elections in 1998. The state of Washington approved all-mail balloting elections in 2011, and the state of Colorado approved all-mail balloting elections in 2013. It seems to be working out well for these states.

The state of California is now considering all-mail balloting. The Sacramento Bee reports, California officials ponder all-mail voting:

When all the ballots are finally tallied from last week’s election, the proportion of Californians voting by mail is expected to break the record set in 2012, the first time more than half of the state’s electorate voted absentee.

The uptick has more Californians pushing for the state to go all the way and ditch traditional polling places. Washington, Colorado and Oregon require all of their elections to be run entirely by mail, and at least 19 others permit some of their elections to be all mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

County elections officials have touted the potential increase in voter interest and significant savings from avoiding the task of recruiting and training polling place workers. And some believe an all-mail system could even help speed up and avoid some overtime ballot-counting.

LaVine compared overseeing the current system to running two elections at the same time – one via the Postal Service and another at polling places. The latter process is so resource-heavy that her office essentially “shuts down” counting absentee votes the Friday before an election, leaving a huge pile of ballots to count in the days and weeks afterward, LaVine said.

“I could direct all my money and equipment to vote-by-mail,” she said, noting that the rural counties of Alpine and Sierra issue mail ballots to everyone. “All of the expenses and problems of running two elections would be off the table. It would be smooth.”

LaVine suggests it also could generate speedier election results by giving officials more time to count mail ballots before an election day. In California, seven congressional and legislative races remained undecided for a week as tens of thousands of late-arriving mail and “provisional” ballots were being tallied.

Neal Kelley, Orange County registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said it’s clear voters on their own are embracing the relative ease of vote-by-mail, which gives them 29 days to make their choices and helps them avoid busy polling places, parking and transportation issues, and time away from work.

Kelley said that if policymakers are prepared to move toward all-mail-ballot elections, elections officials “are ready to head in the same direction.”

Phil Keisling, former Oregon secretary of state, who helped champion that state’s all-mail-ballot elections, said that 50 percent to 60 percent of the votes were coming in via the Postal Service when the electorate decided to make the switch in 1998.

In 2000, Oregon “rationalized,” the system, he said, mailing out ballots to all voters and creating several channels for them to be returned, including in-person at designated drop stations or government offices. Scaled-down booths are set up for voters who prefer the experience of drawing a curtain and voting in public.

Now, within 72 hours of an election day, “my guess is the number of counted ballots stands at 98 or 99percent,” said Keisling, director of the Center of Public Service at Portland State University.

He also pointed to the potential savings. By one estimate, Oregon saved one-quarter to one-third of costs by conducting elections via mail.

In Colorado, a dozen counties representing 80percent of the population were surveyed about their costs before the state made the switch to all-mail last year. Using the 2010 general election, officials estimated an all-mail savings of nearly 19percent, or $1.05 less per registered voter. And a pilot of an all-mail election in Yolo County showed savings of as much as 43percent compared with polling place elections.

There are contrarian views. But this requires an investment in election equipment and human resources that few states are willing to spend on polling place voting:

While some opponents believe all-mail elections open the door to voter fraud, academics and voting-rights advocates worry an all-mail statewide voting system would further disenfranchise young people, residents at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder and those whose native language is not English..

Every election, many ballots go uncounted, including those that are filled out incorrectly, missing valid signatures or simply mailed in too late. Research out of UC Davis shows that nearly 3percent of the vote-by-mail ballots received – or roughly 91,000 – in the June primary election were not counted. It was 1percent, or 69,000 ballots, in the 2012 general election.

“California has one of the highest uncounted mail-ballot counts in the nation,” said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation. “At a time when civic participation is in decline, I think it’s important to nurture the voting process as much as we can, which means operating polling places and keeping voting a visible, public act rather than something people only do in the privacy of their homes.”

While I agree that the civic ritual of  Election Day is something to be preserved — Oregon, Washington and Colorado do this by having vote centers open on Election Day where people can vote rather than precinct polls — Ms. Alexander does not offer an answer for the lack of vendors providing certified election equipment, nor how a cash-strapped state like Arizona should pay for this expensive equipment which is largely being unused by voters who prefer early vote-by-mail.

As for California’s high ballot rejection rate, that is a voter education problem.  Arizona has also had a high ballot rejection rate in past elections, primarily due to provisional and conditional provisional ballots. This problem would be nearly eliminated by all-mail balloting, since a voter would not be disqualified for voting at the wrong precinct, nor disqualified for not having proper ID with them at the polls and have to return at a later date. Voters either return their ballot by mail or vote at a voting center where their voter information could be readily verified.

Whatever changes occur are likely to take some time to materialize. Through the 2016 presidential election cycle, most Californians will continue to vote through a combination of mail balloting and individualized polling places on election days, said Dean Logan, Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder/county clerk.

Beyond that, Logan envisions voting will evolve to become more responsive to the nature and expectations of the electorate. That may include expanded options through vote centers where voters could appear and receive the correct ballot. The hours, dates and locations may accommodate early voters. He also sees expanded access to voting instructions, information and election results accessible through interactive applications on personal and mobile devices.

“In a nutshell,” he said, “I think the future of voting will be more customizable and adaptable than what voters experience today.”

In 2006, Arizona had the “Your Right to Vote by Mail Act” (Prop. 205) on the ballot, which would have required that a mail-in ballot be distributed to every registered voter and all elections be conducted via mail. That measure failed by more than 2 to 1.

I am not so sure that this measure would fail today if presented to the voters as a choice: “You can pay for all of this expensive election equipment that we have to buy and that few of you will ever actually use, and continue to pay for storage and maintenance of this equipment, and pay for all those poll workers, and pay for precinct polling locations; or we can go to all-mail balloting, since most of you already vote that way anyway, and save the state some money.”

The legislature could do this on its own by passing a law. It does not have to refer a ballot measure to the voters, although that is most likely what the legislature would do.

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