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California sees a surge in mail-in voting

About half of ballots are expected by post. Some experts fear the trend risks fraud and jeopardizes privacy.

October 27, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Oldham is a Times staff writer.

Opting for the convenience of their kitchen table over a neighbor's garage, nearly half of Californians are expected to cast their votes by mail rather than at a polling site on Nov. 4, marking a milestone shift in the practice of democracy, elections officials said.

At least 40% of the state's registered voters already have decided they want to vote by mail, according to data compiled Friday by the California Assn. of Clerks and Elected Officials. The percentage is expected to grow as Tuesday's deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot approaches.

California isn't the only state where voters are eschewing a trip to the polls. A majority of voters prefer their mailbox over the ballot box in Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, according to the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

Twenty-eight states allow residents to vote by mail without the excuse -- sickness, disability, being out of town -- that traditional absentee ballots have required.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Voting by mail: A chart in Monday's Section A explaining how to ensure that one's mail-in ballot is counted stated that the ballot must be accompanied by the signed secrecy sleeve so the registrar can confirm the signature is valid; it should have said the envelope the ballot is returned in needs to be signed, not the security sleeve.

Retired newscaster Dan Avey of Studio City voted as soon as his ballot arrived earlier this month.

"If I were truly undecided about some issue, I would wait until election day," said Avey, who marked his choices in the quiet of his dining room three weeks ago. "Now I don't have to pay attention to the flood of ads and last-minute attacks. I can tune the election out."

Los Angeles County -- the nation's largest single voting district -- has the state's lowest mail-in voting bloc, with 20.6% of registered voters. Dean Logan, the county's registrar-recorder, attributes the lower percentage to a more complicated ballot than those in other counties. He said that Angelenos tend to enjoy their neighborhood polling places, but some experts said the county does not publicize mail-in options as much as others do.

Even so, Logan said, the county has registered 32% more people to vote by mail than it did in 2004 and will issue the state's highest number of vote-by-mail ballots before Nov. 4.

Northern California counties have among the highest percentage of mail-in voters in the state: Mendocino at 74.3%, Santa Clara at 68.6%, Marin at 59.9%. So far, San Francisco has registered 40.6%.

The increasing popularity of voting by mail in California and elsewhere has prompted some election experts to question whether convenience should trump concerns about ballot secrecy, fraud and the complications of processing mail-in ballots. The growing debate is leading some registrars and voting-rights advocates to call for a renewed discussion about how far the state should go to promote voting by mail.

"Some would like to see California become entirely a vote-by-mail state," said Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan voter-education group. "I would suggest we take a closer look at it."

Some experts said that residents who vote at home may be more susceptible to coercion by spouses, friends or co-workers to vote a certain way. They also worry that those who cast their ballots early could miss important campaign developments that might have changed their vote.

In the Feb. 5 presidential primary, for instance, some voters mailed their ballots in before John Edwards and other presidential candidates withdrew from the race.

Election watchers fear that ballots could become lost in the mail or arrive too late to be counted. To avoid this scenario, the Santa Barbara County registrar will send workers to pick up ballots at post offices the evening of Nov. 4.

Ballots can be sent by mail or delivered in person to the registrar's office, or can be dropped off at a polling place in the county where the voter lives. In all circumstances, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 4 in order to be counted.

"After every election, in every county office, there are stacks of vote-by-mail ballots that aren't counted because they weren't received by the close of business on election day," Alexander said. "It's heartbreaking, because the voters don't know that their ballots aren't counted."

In California, voting by mail has been on the upswing since 2002, when a state law took effect allowing residents to permanently mark their ballots at home. The trend further escalated this year when many registrars, in an effort to decrease congestion at the polls, launched aggressive publicity campaigns to entice residents to apply for mail-in ballots.

Nearly half of the state's voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail this year. By comparison, 32% of voters used mail-in ballots in the 2004 presidential election and only 24% did so in 2000.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are pushing to require all states to offer voting by mail without an excuse by the next federal election.

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