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Vote-By-Mail Elections Get a Ringing Endorsement

Lane County, Oregon, whose voters have been casting ballots by mail for more than two decades, offers a look at what Santa Barbara residents can expect from the process

As Santa Barbara residents gear up for their first vote-by-mail election, there’s one state that knows a thing or two about the vote-by-mail system.

California’s northerly neighbors in Oregon have been casting their ballots through the mail for more than two decades, and the entire state operates under a vote-by-mail system, a process that began in the early 1980s with local measures and elections. In 1998, Oregonians voted to go all vote-by-mail with every election, including the general and primary presidential elections.

Noozhawk decided to take a closer look at Lane County, Ore., which has a similar demographic and population size to Santa Barbara County, and to see what its elections officials had to say about how the process has worked in its city elections.

Lane County Chief Deputy Clerk Annette Newingham remembers when Oregon first made the change, and how many people said they would rather go to the polls to vote. Now, after getting used to the convenience of the process, she said many Oregonians wouldn’t want to go back.

“It goes extremely well,” she said. “Oregonians would be upset if it went away.”

Some Santa Barbara residents choose to vote at the same polling places they’ve been going to for years, and whether vote-by-mail will catch on and produce a higher turnout remains to be seen.

According to Newingham, turnout is always better with mail-in elections, but that success is relative to what’s on the ballot.

“You might have 6 or 8 percent turnout, but it could be an uncontested election or not have any of the money issues that people get upset about,” she said. “You have to look at what’s on the ballot,” she said, adding that Oregon’s last general presidential election garnered nearly 90 percent turnout.

“There really is a difference,” she said. “We live in a very busy world.”

Newingham is skeptical of the community link to physical polling places and their workers.

“There’s a real fallacy that all of these little old ladies are going to recognize everyone coming in to the polling places,” she said. “But that’s the exception not the rule.”

Since Eugene, the Lane County seat and home to the University of Oregon, is a college town and the second-largest city in the state, Newingham said people drift in and out of the community frequently. Poll workers knowing a voter’s name just isn’t realistic, she said.

Oregonians have saved a lot in election costs since the vote-by-mail system was approved, namely in the amount of wages paid to people working throughout the election process.

“We used to have to hire several thousand people, and our top number that we hire is now 250 people,” Newingham said.

Santa Barbara officials estimated the move would save the city $50,000 in election costs when the issue was approved in March by the City Council.

Clerk services manager Cynthia Rodriguez told the council that Santa Barbara’s voting data from 1983 to 2007 shows that vote-by-mail has steadily increased each election. She said that in the 2007 election, nearly 70 percent of the ballots were cast by mail.

What about the claim that voter fraud is more likely with vote-by-mail?

Newingham doesn’t buy it. To get the system up and running, Lane County officials worked closely with the postal service.

“There are a lot of checks and balances in the system,” she said. Each ballot is checked with the signature on the voter registration card and has to match multiple characteristics. If it doesn’t, a letter is sent to the voter, who must confirm the ballot within 10 days.

Newingham said the process could be labor intensive, but that poll elections were, too. “I would never go back to poll elections,” she said. “It’s inefficient.”

The vote-by-mail period for Santa Barbara’s election will run from Oct. 5 to Nov. 3. Voters may cast ballots at City Hall during regular business hours during that period. The city’s plan also includes sending ballots with pre-paid postage.

Voters wishing to cast their ballots in person could do so at five designated polling places, which were selected because they have the largest voter turnouts. That number has been reduced from 33 polling places in Santa Barbara’s last election, which will pare the number of poll workers needed to staff the locations to 50 from 200.

Those who wish to vote at a polling place will have two opportunities to do so; polls will be open Oct. 31, the Saturday before Election Day, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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