A bill that would drastically change the way San Diego County’s special elections are run passed without any Republican help – it got just two votes total from GOP lawmakers in Sacramento.

It might surprise you to learn, then, that when the idea first emerged, Democrats helped lead the charge against it.

How some leading party members reversed course in just a few years says a lot about the current political landscape and the future of elections in San Diego County.

Democrats wrote the current bill – which would create a five-year pilot program in San Diego County that would make special elections for open seats run primarily by mail, with a drastically reduced number of polling places – and they led the political charge for it.

But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, remembers how hard she fought to kill the idea of vote-by-mail elections years ago.

“What happens I think so often is there is this attachment to the status quo, there’s fear about changing things,” Gonzalez said.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Gonzalez said her mind was changed by a couple factors. One is that she discovered during her years as a labor advocate that voters who had a ballot mailed to them before the election were roughly five times more likely to actually vote.

The other, she said, is she realized the county was spending a huge amount more per person who voted at the polls versus by mail.

County officials said that in the March 2013 special election to fill the vacant 40th state Senate district seat, they spent $221 per in-person voter verses $9 per mail voter.

Then there’s the fact that pathetic voter turnout in each of the last several elections has favored Republican candidates across the board.

“We have all watched as voter turnout has plummeted in recent elections, and it’s our responsibility to do something about it,” Gonzalez wrote in a press release after the bill passed.

Some observers speculated that some Republicans simply didn’t support the bill because it was being led by prominent Democrats like Gonzalez (Gonzalez agrees that’s probably true).

But if you want to understand why GOP support was so hard to come by for a bill steeped in fiscally conservative principles and that originated from a conservative San Diego County government, consider these three points.

Republicans seized on civil rights groups’ hesitation.

Some of the strongest initial opposition to the vote-by-mail legislation came from civil rights groups concerned the new procedures could disenfranchise immigrants and the disabled.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund initially opposed the bill but dropped its opposition after working with Gonzalez and San Diego County officials on protections for immigrants.

Still, MALDEF and other groups wouldn’t officially support the measure.

“There is some research out there that shows that mail-in ballots do have an adverse impact on minority voters,” said Denise Hulett, an attorney with MALDEF.

Hulett said MALDEF supports testing out vote-by-mail, but isn’t sold on it yet.

Those groups’ reluctance had an impact on Republican legislators like Escondido Assemblywoman Marie Waldron. She said she didn’t feel comfortable signing on to a bill without MALDEF and other civil rights groups’ support.

“I have to wonder if this is disenfranchising a significant number of people that vote at the polls,” Waldron said. “What about the people who are maybe, you know, possibly visually impaired or something like that?”

The money wasn’t enough.

San Diego County Registrar Michael Vu strongly supports the pilot program and believes it could trim costs by 30-40 percent.

But somehow, the cost-savings issue wasn’t enough to win over the vast majority of Republican legislators.

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez said he thought the cost-savings touted by Democrats were only rough estimates and was not inclined to vote for a bill just because of those projections.

“As I’ve said a number of times before, all these bills that they’re putting through … really doesn’t address the issue of what we’re trying to do, which is get more people to vote,” he said.

Instead of just moving immediately to vote-by-mail, Chavez wants to create a bipartisan special committee to study new voting technologies.

Republicans fear voter fraud.

Republicans’ fear of potential voter fraud through expansion of vote-by-mail overshadowed potential economic gains.

The bill “includes no protections to ensure the integrity and security of all-mail elections. While interesting, we need to be careful changing election laws,” wrote Amanda Fulkerson of the Assembly Republican Caucus, which advocated fiercely against the bill.

“Right now, our members feel that we should not jeopardize our consistent voting system until we have further facts and statistics on all-mail elections,” Fulkerson wrote.

Republicans believed the threat of fraud would be compounded by another voting-related bill moving through the legislature at the same time.

That bill would change the rules about how long mail ballots can be received and counted after an election.

Currently vote-by-mail ballots must be received by election officials before polls close on the day of the election. The new law would allow ballots to be received no later than three days after the election (if it was time-stamped or postmarked on or before Election Day).

Assembly Republicans feared the two bills combined could allow for abuse of the system.

State Sen. Joel Anderson was one Republican who voted against the mail-counting bill but in favor of Gonzalez’s vote-by-mail effort.

Anderson said that he voted against the mail-counting bill because he saw it as “completely gaming the system” but believes the vote-by-mail bill is “better for the voters, it’s better for my constituents.”

♦♦♦

Put yourselves in the shoes of Vu and other county officials for a minute.

Nearly every time an election comes up, the county spends anywhere from $1 million to $12 million-plus, and organizes hordes of poll workers and precincts across the county.

At what happens at the end of the day?

Turnout is generally low and increasing numbers of residents opt to vote by mail anyway.

As Vu tells it, he just wants to save the county money and acknowledge the changing winds when it comes to vote-by-mail.

But nothing is ever as simple as a dollar saved in Sacramento – especially when it comes to something as fundamental as how voters choose their elected officials.

Gonzalez said most people do not understand how difficult this bill was to pass politically. Sure, Republicans barley supported it, but there was strong opposition from many Democrats, too. The instinct to preserve the status quo when it comes to elections among legislators in Sacramento is strong, she said.

“It was kind of funny. I’m in Republican land carrying this bill, pissing off Democrats and voting rights groups and minority groups,” she said. “I had to convince everybody that this is OK, that change is OK.”

Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill.

    This article relates to: Elections, News, San Diego County Government, Share

    Written by Ari Bloomekatz

    Ari Bloomekatz is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government. You can reach him directly at ari.bloomekatz@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    15 comments
    DADSGETNDOWN
    DADSGETNDOWN

    @voiceofsandiego If people can even figure those out anymore or know what they are for that matter, and separate themselves.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    All elections in Oregon are vote by mail as a result of a 1998 citizens' initiative.  It is very popular.  It's cheaper, easier for voters and there have been very few problems with it, certainly far fewer than with in person voting.  People are made to wait for many hours in polling places in some states.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    The State of Washington has had mail in voting for all elections for a few years. There have been no problems and it has increased voting significantly. CA Republicans don't like the bill for an obvious reason - the greater the voter turnout - the more it favors democrats.

    Ari Bloomekatz
    Ari Bloomekatz

    @bgetzel One thing that's really interesting is that it was Republicans in some other states who spearheaded the vote-by-mail efforts. An expert I talked with said when looking at the politics surrounding vote-by-mail, it's absolutely necessary to dig down into the immediate elections each party is facing right now in each particular geography. You're right, everyone knows the Dems in San Diego County are struggling and the low turnout generally tends to kill them. But one thing I hope people also take away from this piece is that San Diego County officials presented this bill to politicians as a serious cost-saving and "logical" measure. Michael Vu and others here like Geoff Patnoe are really coming at this issue from as nonpartisan a perspective as one could reasonably imagine. Elections in San Diego County are pathetic and costly. They're trying to change that. And no matter what we all personally think about the bill, I'd bet we could all agree that the current status quo of voting processes in San Diego County is a bit sad on several levels and I think any discussions about ways to move forward and improve are important. 

    Chris Glenn
    Chris Glenn subscriber

    @Ari Bloomekatz @bgetzel  Great reporting Ari.  It's hard to imagine that political scientists have not studied the impacts of mail in voting in Washington and other areas that have implemented it.

    Peter Brownell
    Peter Brownell subscriber

    @Chris Glenn @Ari Bloomekatz @bgetzel Actually even some rural precincts (with less than 250 voters) in California are 100% (required) vote-by-mail. The general findings of the academic research is that it tends to increase turnout in (generally low turnout) special elections, but can hurt turnout in (high turnout) general elections. So this bill, which applies only to special elections, strikes a good balance for improving turnout and reducing costs.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    You can be certain that each party checked very carefully to see if voters inclined toward their points of view and candidates were more or less likely to vote under this system. How the parties line up on this tells you what they learned. The rest is just verbal political cover.

    Ari Bloomekatz
    Ari Bloomekatz

    @Chris Brewster There's a lot of truth in this comment. Even the smartest voting/elections experts all say that the people with the best voting data are of course political parties/campaigns/consultants. To me, that's part of the biggest problem here. Everyone can argue that they're defending the rights of everyone and voting in the best interests of everyone when there's not a public wealth of data out there. I spent a little time yesterday going through some of the data Michael Vu and others have collected, and while it's fascinating and important, the overall vote-by-mail discussion across the nation is hindered greatly by a dearth of deep and expansive research. 

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    As if Republicans care about MALDEF or any other civil rights groups. Their goal is to disenfranchise as many minority voters as possibly. Keep them from voting. The less that vote the better chances they have at the pols.

    Chris Klich
    Chris Klich subscriber

    I'm trying to wrap my head around the idea that vote-by-mail can somehow disenfranchise the disabled. I would think that having a mail-in-ballot would increase the possibility of voting for someone who has a hard time moving, since they would be able to vote from the comfort of their own home. Likewise, if a voter is visually impaired, I believe they'd probably have aids agh home that wouldn't necessarily be portable.

    In regards to minority voters, MALDEF's opposition seems suspect, too. Most new citizens are struggling to get an economic foothold, often holding two or more jobs. Getting to the polls would be difficult for someone who has to work many hours at minimum wage, so voting from home seems like a no-brainer.

    Things that make you go "hmmm…."

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    I like to vote by mail.  I get to use my "Forever-USA" postage stamp.

    Signed,

    Jimi Hendrix

    Craig Carter
    Craig Carter subscriber

    And when the postal worker is caught throwing ballots in the dumpster then what? I am registered to vote by mail but I rarely mail it and end up dropping it off at one of the many local polls.  Streamline the polling stations. Maybe a pilot program to have polling stations at malls and on military bases where people will be reminded. Walmart always have someone outside collecting signatures for something. Set up a polling tent in the parking lot. 

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    This is hardly new territory. We can already sign up to become mail-in voters in general and primary elections. Lorena did great on this one.