Voting has changed. We should change along with it.

By The Tribune Editorial Board


Let’s face it, voters. The old-fashioned Election Day is obsolete.

Most of us—70 percent of voters in San Luis Obispo County—are filling out ballots, not in a voting booth, but at a dining room table, in front of the TV, in a doctor’s waiting room. And we often do so weeks before the actual election.

California is recognizing this reality. In a move long overdue, 14 California counties—including San Luis Obispo—have the option of switching to a hybrid form of all-mail balloting beginning in 2018. Other counties, except for Los Angeles, will be able to make the change in 2020.

Here’s how it would work: Every registered voter would be sent a vote-by-mail ballot. For voters who don’t like the idea of dropping a ballot in the mail or have a problem—a lost ballot, for instance—there would be a strong support system in place.

That includes drop-off centers where voters could turn in their ballots and, as it gets closer to election day, full-fledged voting centers that would offer a range of services—including old-school voting booths.

SLO County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong is conducting a feasibility study to determine whether it’s a good idea to make the switch in 2018.

As long as it’s logistically feasible and can be done smoothly, we see no reason to wait.

We believe the hybrid voting system makes sense, for several reasons:

It can increase voter turnout

Yes, we said “can.” Interestingly, experts say that making voting more convenient doesn’t necessarily boost turnout.

Often, it’s the prospect of a looming deadline that inspires people to act. If voters believe they have all the time in the world to get their ballots in the mail, they’re more inclined to put it off.

There is a cure for that, however. There’s evidence that turnout increases when election officials frequently communicate with voters, according to Elizabeth Bergman, associate political science professor at Cal State East Bay.

It saves money

A countywide election costs around $500,000, according to Gong. He hasn’t estimated how much a vote-by-mail election would cost, though San Mateo County—which participated in a vote-by-mail pilot program—found expenses dropped 15 percent.

It improves recruitment and training

Instead of hiring and training 900 polling place workers to staff 137 precincts at 76 different polling places, Gong estimates between 100 and 150 would be needed to staff regional voting centers. (There would be five regional voting centers open 10 days before Election Day. That would increase to 17 centers four days before the election.)

Because election workers would be working several days, as opposed to one, they would have more time to get acclimated.

It offers voters flexibility

All voters get mail-in ballots. What they do then is their business. They can drop the ballot in a mail box or at one of several drop-off boxes located in libraries, city halls and similar places. As it gets closer to Election Day, they can go to a voting center.

If they lose a ballot, they can stop by any voting center to pick up a new one. (All voting centers will have all ballots available. For example, if you live in Pismo Beach but happen to be in San Luis Obispo, you can drop by the SLO center for a Pismo ballot.)

It’s inevitable

The number of vote-by-mail voters has been steadily increasing, and that trend is likely to continue, making it less cost-effective to open and operate voting precincts around the county.

That doesn’t mean we won’t miss precinct voting.

For many voters, it’s a tradition—an opportunity to feel part of a larger community of citizens who care about their country.

But the lines at polling places are growing shorter. It’s clear that it’s no longer practical or efficient for San Luis Obispo County to continue to staff polling places for a dwindling number of voters.

It’s time for a change.