A recount on election savings 

With millions of dollars in extra costs looming over each California county due to the just-passed early presidential primary, local governments are starting to look for ways to reduce their election expenses.

San Mateo County faces loss of interest earnings on some $1.5 million from general fund reserves to pay for its February 2008 primary. And after the Gray Davis recall election in 2003 and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s special election in 2005, the state took more than a year to repay counties.

San Mateo officials are among those thinking that now is a good time to revive the push for counties to gain the option of choosing all-mail elections. Balloting entirely by mail is estimated to save approximately one-third of election costs by eliminating most precincts.

Last year San Mateo was among the counties actively lobbying Sacramento for a pilot program testing all-mail voting in general elections. The effort fizzled. As of now, California only permits all-mail ballots in certain minor elections such as special-district revenue initiatives.

A new bill enabling counties to opt for all-mail elections is pending in the Assembly. Co-sponsored by two Bay Area legislators, AB 1654 was introduced last month and is being closely watched by local election officials.

In any event, postal voting is a steadily rising trend in the Bay Area. About 48 percent of San Francisco voters in last November’s election mailed absentee ballots, an 8 percent rise from last year. Nearly half of San Mateo votes are cast on absentee ballots and about 37 percent of county voters have signed up for permanent absentee balloting.

A San Francisco Elections Department spokeswomansaid The City has no immediate plans to investigate all-mail voting. Admittedly San Francisco probably has enough on its plate as the first touch-screen voting machines begin making their local appearance next year.

San Francisco has already done something to cut costs and boost voter participation by pioneering ranked-choice voting in 2004. Runoff elections used to be a regular occurrence in The City, costing some $3 million apiece. But ranked-choice voting, in which voters list their favored candidates in order, does away with the need for runoff elections.

Statewide vote-by-mail systems have proven generally successful in Oregon and Washington, especially when it comes to increasing voter turnout. Almost 87 percent of registered Oregonians regularly cast their ballots now, and registration jumped by 16 percent after the state went all-mail in 2000.

Most Washington state voters cast their ballots by mail. State law allows counties to opt for all-mail voting and all but a handful of jurisdictions have already done so.

It is difficult to raise objections against a change that saves taxpayers money while also increasing voter participation. There seems no reason why the California Legislature shouldn’t allow local governments to make up their own minds about trying all-mail voting.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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