May 29, 2014

Assembly approves bill for all-mail special elections

Seeking to improve low voter participation in special elections, the California Assembly on Thursday narrowly passed and sent to the Senate legislation that distribute all ballots by mail for elections to fill vacancies.

The constant shuffle of elected officials seeking new seats follows a familiar pattern -- a state legislator resigns or wins election to a new office, and a tiny sliver of the electorate chooses a replacement.

Turnout in a recent pair of special elections hovered around 12 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Citing the expense, the Senate leader floated letting the governor fill vacancies.

An effective solution, according to proponents of Assembly Bill 1873, is to make mailboxes, not polling places, the nexus of special elections. Voters otherwise unaware that an election is going on would be looped into affairs currently dominated by the most diligent voters.

"It stands to reason that when a voter gets a ballot in their hand they become aware that a special election is happening and are more likely to engage in the process," said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco.

Under the bill, which was sent to the Senate on a 42-30 vote, special elections to fill vacancies in the Legislature or Congress could be conducted exclusively by mail if the boards of supervisors in all involved counties agree.

While they praised the goal of boosting civic engagement, Republican opponents warned about the potential for voting fraud. They said prioritizing mail ballots over in-person voting would undermine election integrity and raised the specter of partisan manipulation.

"We are all for making sure that the voices of our constituents get heard," said Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, but "it is not appropriate that we allow for gamesmanship."