It’s easy. It’s convenient.
These two reasons repeatedly cited by voters, county election officials, voter advocacy groups and other organizations may account for the growing number of Oakland residents planning to vote early this year, by mail, instead of going to the polls on Election Day.
Jamie Israel, 26, a server who works late shifts at a restaurant in Berkeley, is giving early voting a try for the first time this fall, after eight years living and voting in Oakland. Monday is the first day to vote by mail for the upcoming election. “It’s just a matter of convenience,” she said. “And doing it on my own time.” For the North Oakland resident, the limited time to vote on Election Day doesn’t work with her schedule. Voting by mail may be “anticlimactic” but it’s worth forgoing an experience at the polls, she said.
Israel is part of a growing group of Alameda County voters – which includes Oakland voters. About a month before the November 4, 2014, election – which includes an Oakland mayoral race –111,132 Oakland voters had signed up for vote by mail, or VBM, ballots, according to county Deputy Registrar of Voters Cynthia Cornejo. That group represents more than half of all registered Oakland voters.
Looking at county figures, in the June primary earlier this year, of the 207,088 Alameda County residents who voted, nearly 71 percent of those voters cast a ballot by mail. During the previous general election in November, 2012, 55 percent of the 602,479 ballots cast were from VBM. That increase may be attributed to the county Registrar of Voters office’s ongoing efforts to promote VBM, Cornejo said. “It’s more a benefit for the voter,” she said. “They can take their time…vote at their leisure.”
Cornejo said VBM’s mounting popularity brings election costs down. Vote by mail elections are usually less expensive than those held at polling places, which require paid workers, equipment costs, and other expenses, she said. Her office estimates that the average VBM-only election costs $7 to $9 per vote, compared to a polling place-only election, which ranges between $12 and $15 per vote. With the apparent financial benefits for election departments, she said many states are seeing an uptick in voters registering for similar vote by mail programs. For the California June primary, 69 percent of registered voters cast a ballot by mail, according to data from the California Secretary of State. Ten years earlier, only 34 percent voted early.
Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Sacramento, said the group supports any method that encourages more voting. With VBM, she said, “our biggest concern is that (voters) get it right and don’t accidentally disenfranchise themselves.” VBM voters are responsible for mailing in or dropping off their own ballots, she said, leaving more room for error because of signatures or late arrivals to election offices.
She said VBM has become popular in California, accounting for more than half of the ballots cast in the last election, and noted the increase over the past decade, likely connected with sign-ups more readily available on voter registration forms. For many voters, she said VBM “sounds like a good idea.” However, VBM is “not an option all voters desire,” she said. Vote by mail is often preferred by older, wealthier, suburban, white, and Asian homeowners. “It’s a preference helping those already voting,” Alexander said. Younger, urban, black and Latino voters tend to prefer voting at the polls.
Not to overstate issues with vote by mail use, she said for those intimidated by the voting process, voting in their first election or overwhelmed with the wordy options and formal language can find the take-home ballots a less stressful way to make decisions. “It still can be a beneficial tool for voting,” she said.
Lift Up Oakland, the campaign supporting Oakland’s Measure FF, a push to increase the city’s minimum wage to $12.25 an hour, is promoting VBM for residents as a tactic to get more residents voting in the November election. The campaign expects more than two-thirds of Oakland voters to cast a ballot by mail in the upcoming election. Campaign spokesman Shum Preston said overall voter participation is falling, but VBM is attracting more voters in California, Oregon and Washington. He called it a “West Coast phenomenon.”
He said Lift Up Oakland believes minimum wage will be the issue that pushes voters in Oakland to cast a ballot – whether at home or at the polls. Campaign volunteers are walking VBM applications to tens of thousands of homes, especially in low-income areas where many low-wage workers live. “We are trying to take on the responsibility of voter engagement and mobilization,” Preston said.
Katherine Gavzy, the president of the League of Women Voters of Oakland, a political group that offers voting education and policy advocacy, said the organization supports any tools that make voting easier. VBM accelerates the voting process, pressuring groups like the League to put out voting guides and other research earlier than the traditional election schedule, she said. The League is worried some people may be voting before they are fully informed. But even if VBM is a “nuisance,” Gavzy said the group ultimately wants people to vote.
The Alameda County Republican Party is more focused on voters getting as informed as possible on the issues and candidates before an election. “As far as vote by mail, that’s their own choice,” county party treasurer Jeff Wald said from the party’s offices in San Leandro. “Many people have decided to do that. We’ve never advocated one way or the other.” He said many voters choose early voting “because it’s easier.”
Many Oakland residents don’t need convincing about the merits of VBM. Jessica Hendricks, 30, who lives near the MacArthur BART station, is a permanent vote by mail constituent. “I enjoy having the ballot early and researching everything,” she said. Looking back at her nine years as an Oakland voter she realized she’s never voted in a booth. She said it is weird to think about missing a typical voting experience, but touted the convenience and ease of voting early and at home. “The easier you can make it, the better,” she said.
Abby Pollak, a 72-year-old retired teacher who lives in Rockridge, is enthusiastic about voting by mail, which she has done for years. “It’s so much more convenient,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we do this? It’s fantastic.” She said that sitting at her kitchen counter, consulting election research and voting guides with friends and her partner Helen Brainerd, is “so simple, and I feel so much better informed.”
She mentioned that for President Obama’s first election, she went to her polling place, “because it’s an event.” Back when she first started voting by mail, she said she missed the experience of standing in a booth, but as she grew older (and “lazy and impatient,” she said with a chuckle) it was less important to be at the physical location. “I just think it’s so much more convenient for people to do it, and they should be encouraged to do it,” she said about voting by mail. “There’s a million reasons people need to vote,” Pollak said.
More information about signing up to vote by mail and where to mail or drop off ballots is available at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters website.