Despite mail ballots, polling places essential
Mr. George Horrigan, in his column, “Your vote counts, but only if you vote” on Oct. 9, urged a look at adopting exclusive vote-by-mail elections instead of our current mixed system of mail ballots and polling place ballots. Although eliminating polling places might have some cost-benefits, there would be other consequences that might not be as desirable.
Political campaigns like to “lock up” votes in advance of election day, which they can accomplish by encouraging early voting by mail before all the facts are known. Once the voter has received a mail ballot, the temptation is to vote it and mail it in, thereby completing one’s civic duty. But the earlier the voter casts a ballot, the less well-informed his or her votes are likely to be. And there is also the possibility of last-minute revelations that might otherwise sway voters but will have little effect if the ballots are already cast.
Mail ballots require more processing than polling place ballots before they can be counted, in particular the requirement of signature verification. The more mail ballots there are, the more votes will not be counted on election night, leaving them to be counted during the official canvass period following election day. That means that in a tight election, the outcome may not be known for days or weeks.
In 1960, California law provided that mail ballots could still be counted if received by six days after the election as long as they had been postmarked by midnight on election day. On election night the nationwide presidential election contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was so close that it looked as if it would turn on the uncounted mail ballots in California. Kennedy was ahead by 37,000 votes in the state but 230,000 mail ballots remained to be counted. Counting could not begin until the seventh day after the election. Lawyers began to descend on the election offices. Finally, 11 days after the election, with all the votes tallied, Nixon was declared to have carried the state by 16,107 votes but Kennedy won nationwide.
From 1972 until 2014, the deadline for mail ballots in California was the close of the polls on election day. Legislation enacted this year and effective next year provides that mail ballots can be counted as long as they are postmarked by election day and received by the third day after the election.
In an effort to ensure that everyone’s vote is counted, the new law increases the risk of a repeat of what happened in 1960 if there is a close election. In addition, postmarks are not always clear, another reason for campaigns to challenge ballots in close elections. Making matters worse, the U.S. Postal Service has announced the closure of some of its mail processing centers, which is likely to delay some mail ballots in reaching election offices on time. In addition, the more unvoted mail ballots there are still in the hands of voters, the greater the temptation for political campaigns to offer to “assist” voters in voting their ballots or even to offer to hand-deliver the voted ballots to the election office. The mail ballot of a voter who is not regarded as a “reliable” voter may never reach the election office under these conditions.
I don’t see these extreme scenarios as a problem in Nevada County, but they have been in other parts of the state. And I wouldn’t want to rely on laws against such activities preventing them from happening again.
I, for one, will be voting at my polling place on election day.
Bruce Bolinger, who lives in Grass Valley, is a former Nevada County Clerk-Recorder.
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