Thursday, November 10, 2011

Time to ditch ballot box for online and mail-in voting

Turnout was light in San Mateo County for Tuesday's election.

I worked as a poll worker in Tuesday’s election here in South San Francisco and, as seen in the photo above, most of my time was free — we had only 29 people vote at Precinct 1801, my table. The two other precincts also stashed in the Sunshine Gardens Elementary cafeteria had similar numbers.

The folks I worked with — a retired Pan-Am flight attendant, a South San Francisco High senior getting bonus points (and a day off) for his government class, and our smart-alec inspector — helped pass the time. As did Steve Jobs’ biography.

Part of the reason for our low turnout was no doubt the lackluster ballot (right). While folks in nearby San Francisco had an exciting mayor’s race, we only had a community college bond, a board election and a city council race with two incumbents running. While the lone city council challenger had a nickname of “Midnight,” as usual, incumbency prevailed.

More than one person told us “thanks for volunteering” as they left the polls. It was all I could do to point out that I was hardly volunteering — I was in it for the cash.

So let’s see what the County of San Mateo bought at my precinct for its cash: three general poll workers at $125 each plus an inspector at $150, so $525 for 29 votes. Or, $18.10 per vote — not counting the salaries of the county technicians that occasionally checked in on us, or the labor/gas needed to transport our four voting machines, ballots, supplies, etc. from the San Mateo area to South San Francisco. Times that by the 440 precincts in San Mateo County and there’s a lot of money.

If not for people saving 44 cents by dropping off their mail-in ballots for free, it would have been a very quiet day at my polls. At least there was some cute kids' art (left) to look at.

One reason for the poor showing was that about half of the registered voters in our precinct of 600-odd people are registered to vote by mail. And with our lackluster ballot, this would have been an ideal election to have an ALL-mail election. It’s been done before. By eliminating the poll workers alone, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved, even if vote by mail ballots are sent out with postage paid — which they somehow inexplicably aren’t.

San Mateo County had just 22.3 percent turnout for this election, including mail-in ballots. In fact, there were 54,262 votes cast by mail, compared to just 19,604 people voting at the polls. So an all-mail election makes sense to me.

Or, how about online voting? Surely if there’s enough security in place to file my tax returns online, there’s enough for me to vote online. (Note, this would be alongside an option for mail-ins — we don’t want to keep people without computers from voting.)

“But,” some might say, “if we let people vote at home, we don’t know who’s REALLY voting.” But isn’t that the case now? As mentioned, half the people in the precinct I worked are registered to vote by mail anyway. And heck, election workers aren’t allowed to ask for ID in California, so who’s to tell if there’s fraud going on now?

In this age where technology is improving at the same time that governments are having to find ways to save money, doesn’t doing away with polling places altogether make sense?

As the chart I made below shows, there was a rush of voters trying to vote at my precinct just after working hours, suggesting people are having trouble finding time to vote. Give them the option to go online with a pin/password, and I’d bet you’d get much HIGHER turnout if polling places were eliminated.

Votes by hour in Precinct 1801.

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