Editorial: Mail-in-only voting’s time is nigh

There’s been a fair amount of post-election grumbling in California — and not necessarily from voters unhappy with the results. Rather, the amount of time it’s taken to determine the outcomes in close races is triggering some of that frustration.

Here in San Luis Obispo County, for example, it took more than a week to declare Jan Marx the new mayor of San Luis Obispo. The winner of a neck-and-neck race for a seat on the Shandon school board probably won’t be known until next week, though that’s because the school district crosses into Monterey County, where provisional ballots are still being tabulated.

We understand that in this age of instant information, waiting two weeks or more for votes to be tallied seems archaic.

Yet it’s not a bad sign when races are so close that they can’t be called until every last vote is counted. That usually means there are a number of strong candidates on the ballot — and that’s what we want in a democracy.

Consider, too, that in SLO County’s case, an unusually high voter turnout of nearly 69 percent was another factor that contributed to the length of time it took to process ballots.

Still, there’s no denying that the growing popularity of voting by mail is contributing to the logjam.

The reason is straightforward: Mail-in ballots simply take longer to process than poll ballots. Among other steps, signatures on mail-in ballots must be scanned by computer and verified; envelopes opened; ballots unfolded and sorted; and ballots with any sort of issue — a coffee stain, for example — must be handled separately.

Ballots mailed well in advance of Election Day can be handled early, but when large numbers are received on Monday or Tuesday of election week — which was the case this time — the process bogs down.

Hiring more temporary workers to process those ballots isn’t necessarily an option. In our county, that would necessitate adding office space, as well as hiring another management-level employee, according to County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald. And in this era of government deficits, hiring and training another manger isn’t likely to happen.

There is another option: Switching to mail-in-only voting.

That’s being tried in a growing number of jurisdictions; the states of Washington and Oregon, for example, have mail-only elections.

Mail-based systems streamline — and can even speed up — the tabulating by allowing elections workers to concentrate on processing mail-in ballots, rather than having to divide their time between mail and polling place elections. Another important consideration: mail-based voting is much less expensive.

But there is a downside: Some studies have shown that mail-only balloting can reduce voter turnout in areas with large rural, low-income and minority populations, due to higher mobility rates and, in some cases, poor mail service.

For that reason, voting rights organizations recommend maintaining at least a limited number of regional voting centers for in-person balloting.

We agree that type of hybrid system makes sense.

So does Rodewald. If the county were to switch to a mail-based system, she would advocate maintaining a limited number of polling places on Election Day — say, 15 or 30 precincts, as opposed to the current 138. That would still save an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 per election.

With governments at every level so desperate to save money, that seems like a logical step. Yet so far, the California Legislature has resisted even allowing counties the option of switching to a mail-based election.

We believe it’s time to reconsider. With more than half of SLO County’s voting population now opting for mail-in ballots, staffing a large number of polling places is a luxury we can no longer afford.

While the lessons of the current election are still fresh, we strongly urge state and local officials to collaborate in developing more streamlined, affordable alternatives — while taking steps to ensure all eligible voters remain adequately served.