Mail-in ballots get most votes
By Deborah Lohse
Mercury News
Article Launched: 01/21/2008 01:30:47 AM PST

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Wen Zhuang votes by mail because she doesn't want to have to scramble to vote before picking up her daughter at school.

Christina Ramirez wants time to mull over her vote - even though it'll probably be for Barack Obama.

And Roberta Allen, who's already voted for Fred Thompson, never really trusted those voting machines and sometimes had trouble finding her polling place.

Voters like these are behind an explosion in Santa Clara County of what used to be called absentee voting, now dubbed Vote By Mail.

The county has nearly doubled its number of permanent mail voters since 2006. It now has the highest level among the 15 California counties with the most registered voters - 61 percent, county officials say, compared with an estimated average of 34 percent for the group of 15.

County Registrar of Voters Jesse Durazo has been on a crusade for years to convert walk-in voters to mail. Besides easing chronic problems like too few poll workers and last-minute ballot requests, it lets voters deliberate over their choices and avoid long lines on Election Day, he says.

"It's a win-win," he asserts.

In fact, the rise in voting-by-mail, originally the purview of people who expected to be out of town on Election Day, has transformed the process of voting in several ways.

It's made it harder for candidates to determine how and when to target voters. "The practical impact of the rise in absentee voting is that campaigns must start earlier with all activities: TV advertising, direct mail and door knocking," said veteran campaign manager Jude Barry.
It has, arguably, made the process of voting a less communal experience and taken the luster off the formality of Election Day. During last year's San Jose City Council elections, for instance, more than half the total votes were cast days before a single polling place opened.

And historically, people who cast their ballots by mail are significantly more likely to actually vote than people who don't. As many as 75 percent of permanent absentee voters return their ballots, while polling places see turnout in the 20 to 30 percent range. "I think if you put a ballot in the hands of any voter, that tends to increase their propensity to vote," said Stephen Weir, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

Saves money

Mail voting also is a real cost-saver for officials such as Durazo, who can begin printing and bundling permanent mail ballots for mailing up to 60 days before the election - rather than piecemeal during the busy election season. Four years ago, the laws changed in California to allow anyone to become a permanent absentee voter.

About 20,000 Santa Clara County voters have no choice about whether to vote by mail. The registrar is not required to provide a polling place in precincts with fewer than 250 voters, and people in more than 280 county precincts have been notified recently that they must vote by mail. They include small rural enclaves and busier areas such as along Stevens Creek Boulevard at Meridian Avenue.

Some voters are adamantly opposed to the idea. Gordon Ashe, a 65-year-old retired technology worker, doesn't trust voting by mail and doesn't understand why anyone would vote before getting all the information possible on candidates.

"You can't vote in a vacuum," said Ashe, who says candidate John McCain so far looks "promising."

Other voters say they treasure the ritual of going to the polls. Angelica Estrella, a 51-year-old high school teacher, always took her four kids with her to the polls. That way, she said, when children grow up, "they'll look forward to voting."

Still others just like to see their votes safely cast. "If I see it, I believe it," said Canena Funes, a 21-year-old sales manager for an engineering firm.

One thing newly registered mail voters need to know is that if they decide to drop off their ballot on Election Day - rather than putting it in the mail in advance - their votes won't be tallied for three days or more. All mail ballots need to go through a signature-verification process, and last-minute drop-offs won't

start being verified until after election night. (Ballots that are merely postmarked the day of an election aren't counted at all.)
Historically, about 25 percent of absentee ballots are dropped at polling places or the registrar's office on Election Day. And so far, there doesn't appear to be a lag in votes already cast in Santa Clara County or statewide, officials say. Weir said some counties are even seeing a bigger early vote count than normal, while Santa Clara County officials say the flow is about normal at roughly 4,000 a day.

Last-minute votes

Still, some politicos believe mail-in voters will wait longer than usual to vote this year, given the number of candidates and the closeness of the races.

Gwendolyn McDaniel, a 70-year-old retired teacher, is waiting. "I like them all, so what do you do?" said the Democrat from Los Gatos. "I'm waiting to see how the public responds and the voters respond in the other caucuses."

Californians already will have to ignore some names on their ballots, which the county readied for mailing at the end of December; Democrats Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and Republicans Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter have since dropped out.

Keen Butcher, chairman of the Santa Clara County Republican Party, said he's talked to many Republicans with similar concerns. "They want to make sure their guy is still in" on Feb. 5, he said.

Both sides agree that, for once, a lot is at stake in California.

Said McDaniel: "I feel this election is probably the most important one in which I will ever cast a vote."

Contact Deborah Lohse at or (40 295-3983