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GUEST OPINION: A look at the all-important mail-in ballot

Joyce Munsell of Santa Rosa drops off her absentee ballot at the drive-thru window of the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters in Santa Rosa on June 4.

John Burgess / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 7:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 7:39 p.m.

Although Election Day, Nov. 6, is still a long way away, Sonoma County voters will begin casting their ballots this week.

On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office began delivering ballots to the post office to be sent to the county’s permanent vote-by-mail voters. Voters can immediately begin returning these ballots as soon as they fill them out.

By a recent count, these voters number almost 62 percent of the registered voters in the county. What started as a convenience for voters expecting to be absent from their home on Election Day has become a new mode of voting.

In conversation with longtime Registrar Janice Atkinson, she said that she had not yet worked up an estimate for voter turnout for this election. However, while the vote-by-mail turnout usually exceeds that of poll voting in off-year elections, given this is a presidential year, she expects the turnout for mail-in and poll voters to be about the same.

Atkinson told me she originally was skeptical of vote-by-mail but now believes in it: “If we mail it, they will vote,” she said. In fact, she now favors a transition to complete mail voting.

The June 5 primary election provided some thought-provoking results. In Sonoma County, a total of 115,863 ballots were cast, of which nearly 76 percent were mail-in ballots.

Less than 25 percent of ballots cast were at precinct polling places, a definitive ratio of 3 to 1 in favor of the mail-in ballot.

As an inspector at a Sonoma precinct for the June 5 primary, I was struck by the strong preference of voters to cast their votes by mail — but with typical quirky human behavior.

Precinct 1801 was located at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, supported by a staff of four: three clerks and myself as inspector in charge. Our voter registry showed 1,404 voters had been assigned to our precinct. Of those, 891 voters were issued mail-in ballots a month before the election.

Thus, 63 percent of the precinct’s registered voters did not intend to go to the polling place. But matters turned out differently.

Ballots need to be received by the registrar’s office by mail on Election Day or dropped off before polls close at 8 p.m.

As it turned out, through June 5, the registrar’s office had received 510 mail-in ballots from our precinct. This represented 36 percent of the precinct’s registered voters and a turnout of 57 percent of the mail-in ballots issued.

On Election Day, we received 846 mail-in ballots delivered by voters who came to the Veterans Memorial Building.

Obviously, all these voters either had procrastinated in making their ballot choices or had voted but had not gotten around to mailing in their ballots. All the same, they wanted to be sure that their vote would be counted, and therefore these voters from diverse precincts walked in their mail ballots on Election Day.

This dynamic that we observed says something positive about our civic uprightness. But it also reveals our human frailty of procrastination.

So, if you’re a mail ballot voter like me, mail it in — don’t walk it in. But, whatever you do, vote.

Bill Boerum, a resident of Sonoma, has served as an inspector in Sonoma County elections. He also serves as treasurer of the Sonoma Valley Health Care District.

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