In the November 2008 election, more than 20 percent of all votes nationwide were cast by mail.  That’s more than a 50 percent increase since the previous Presidential election, and, given recent changes in state law, and the growing popularity of mail voting among citizens and elections officials alike, the percentage of mail voters will continue to grow. 

From here, we can see the path to an American election in which the majority of votes cast nationwide are mail ballots.

This sea change in the way that Americans are voting has profound implications for election administration, campaigning, civic engagement, advocacy, and American Democracy. 2010 will mark a milestone, as California, the most populous state in the nation, will become a majority mail voting state, with more than 50 percent of its vote total expected to come from mail voters. 

In 2002, California adopted a permanent mail voting option, allowing citizens the right to “opt-in” to receive their ballots by mail in the weeks leading up to each  election.  Since then, their numbers have skyrocketed– from 28 percent of the vote cast in California in 2002 to 42 percent in 2008.  

With public adoption already so prevalent and getting more so, it is no surprise that there is growing sentiment in cash-strapped California to save millions of dollars by moving to all mail elections.

In 2007, Colorado adopted a California-style permanent mail option, and in 2008, more than 60 percent of Colorado’s ballots were cast by mail.

Elections officials are so pleased that they’re hoping to move the state to all-mail elections by 2014, if not sooner.  The same permanent mail option that has radically changed elections in Colorado and California, and in Oregon and Washington before that, has now been adopted in both New Jersey and Hawaii, and we can expect the same mass exodus from the polling place in those states as well. 

For example, a vote-by-mail special election to fill a vacancy in a Congressional District will be held on May 22 in Hawaii.

Oregon, of course, has voted entirely by mail since 1998, and all but one county in Washington vote entirely by mail as well.  In West Virginia, a pilot project will allow seven cities from across the state to hold all-mail elections, and in Arizona, cities have the right to petition their counties to hold all-mail elections as well.

Here in California, successful all mail elections have been held in Burbank and Santa Monica, saving local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars. Numerous other states either already have adopted, or are beginning to explore, options designed to make it easier for citizens to vote by mail.

Advocates of Vote by Mail say that it lowers election administration costs, increases turnout, supports more informed participation, and decreases fraud. Critics charge that it allows non-citizens to vote, that it is more prone to fraud, and leaves voters
more vulnerable to the pressures of interest groups.  It is also alleged that Vote by Mail could disenfranchise the poor and minority groups, and that it undermines an important communal ritual that unites an otherwise atomized society.

One thing we know is true is that people in Orange County are opting to vote by mail in increasing numbers: For example, 45 percent of the votes in the Nov. 4, 2008 election were cast by mail, up from 28 percent in 2000.  Also, the percentage of
mailed votes in special or primary elections has skyrocketed: 67 percent of the votes were cast by mail in the 2003 special election that put Bill Campbell on the Board of Supervisors.

In February 2007, 77 percent of the votes in the 1st district special election–Janet Nguyen– were cast by mail.  80 percent of the votes in the 72nd Assembly District special election to replace Assemblyman Mike Duval (won by Chris Norby) were
cast by mail, and 74% of the votes in the recent Mission Viejo recall election were cast by mail.

AB 1681 establishes a vote by mail pilot project. It will allow for up to three (3) local elections in Yolo County (population about 200,000) to be conducted by mail. 

Several polling locations will remain open throughout the County for  those who do not wish to cast their ballot by mail. On March 16, AB 1681 passed the Assembly Elections & Redistricting Committee on a 5-0 vote. The chances are good that this non appropriations bill will be signed into law.

AB 1681 will provide some of  the data necessary to have an informed debate about vote by mail. The Board of Supervisors should ask our legislative delegation to introduce similar legislation to AB 1681 so we can fully assess the impact this trend is having on Orange County, whose population is much larger (3 million), more politically conservative and more diverse than Yolo County.

Fred Smoller is the director of the Masters of Public Administration at Brandman University. Brandman is part of the Chapman University System. Smoller can be reached at