A bill that would drastically change the way San Diego County’s special elections are run passed without any Republican help – it got just two votes total from GOP lawmakers in Sacramento.
It might surprise you to learn, then, that when the idea first emerged, Democrats helped lead the charge against it.
How some leading party members reversed course in just a few years says a lot about the current political landscape and the future of elections in San Diego County.
Democrats wrote the current bill – which would create a five-year pilot program in San Diego County that would make special elections for open seats run primarily by mail, with a drastically reduced number of polling places – and they led the political charge for it.
But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, remembers how hard she fought to kill the idea of vote-by-mail elections years ago.
“What happens I think so often is there is this attachment to the status quo, there’s fear about changing things,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said her mind was changed by a couple factors. One is that she discovered during her years as a labor advocate that voters who had a ballot mailed to them before the election were roughly five times more likely to actually vote.
The other, she said, is she realized the county was spending a huge amount more per person who voted at the polls versus by mail.
County officials said that in the March 2013 special election to fill the vacant 40th state Senate district seat, they spent $221 per in-person voter verses $9 per mail voter.
Then there’s the fact that pathetic voter turnout in each of the last several elections has favored Republican candidates across the board.
“We have all watched as voter turnout has plummeted in recent elections, and it’s our responsibility to do something about it,” Gonzalez wrote in a press release after the bill passed.
Some observers speculated that some Republicans simply didn’t support the bill because it was being led by prominent Democrats like Gonzalez (Gonzalez agrees that’s probably true).
But if you want to understand why GOP support was so hard to come by for a bill steeped in fiscally conservative principles and that originated from a conservative San Diego County government, consider these three points.
Republicans seized on civil rights groups’ hesitation.
Some of the strongest initial opposition to the vote-by-mail legislation came from civil rights groups concerned the new procedures could disenfranchise immigrants and the disabled.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund initially opposed the bill but dropped its opposition after working with Gonzalez and San Diego County officials on protections for immigrants.
Still, MALDEF and other groups wouldn’t officially support the measure.
“There is some research out there that shows that mail-in ballots do have an adverse impact on minority voters,” said Denise Hulett, an attorney with MALDEF.
Hulett said MALDEF supports testing out vote-by-mail, but isn’t sold on it yet.
Those groups’ reluctance had an impact on Republican legislators like Escondido Assemblywoman Marie Waldron. She said she didn’t feel comfortable signing on to a bill without MALDEF and other civil rights groups’ support.
“I have to wonder if this is disenfranchising a significant number of people that vote at the polls,” Waldron said. “What about the people who are maybe, you know, possibly visually impaired or something like that?”
The money wasn’t enough.
San Diego County Registrar Michael Vu strongly supports the pilot program and believes it could trim costs by 30-40 percent.
But somehow, the cost-savings issue wasn’t enough to win over the vast majority of Republican legislators.
Assemblyman Rocky Chavez said he thought the cost-savings touted by Democrats were only rough estimates and was not inclined to vote for a bill just because of those projections.
“As I’ve said a number of times before, all these bills that they’re putting through … really doesn’t address the issue of what we’re trying to do, which is get more people to vote,” he said.
Instead of just moving immediately to vote-by-mail, Chavez wants to create a bipartisan special committee to study new voting technologies.
Republicans fear voter fraud.
Republicans’ fear of potential voter fraud through expansion of vote-by-mail overshadowed potential economic gains.
The bill “includes no protections to ensure the integrity and security of all-mail elections. While interesting, we need to be careful changing election laws,” wrote Amanda Fulkerson of the Assembly Republican Caucus, which advocated fiercely against the bill.
“Right now, our members feel that we should not jeopardize our consistent voting system until we have further facts and statistics on all-mail elections,” Fulkerson wrote.
Republicans believed the threat of fraud would be compounded by another voting-related bill moving through the legislature at the same time.
That bill would change the rules about how long mail ballots can be received and counted after an election.
Currently vote-by-mail ballots must be received by election officials before polls close on the day of the election. The new law would allow ballots to be received no later than three days after the election (if it was time-stamped or postmarked on or before Election Day).
Assembly Republicans feared the two bills combined could allow for abuse of the system.
State Sen. Joel Anderson was one Republican who voted against the mail-counting bill but in favor of Gonzalez’s vote-by-mail effort.
Anderson said that he voted against the mail-counting bill because he saw it as “completely gaming the system” but believes the vote-by-mail bill is “better for the voters, it’s better for my constituents.”
Put yourselves in the shoes of Vu and other county officials for a minute.
Nearly every time an election comes up, the county spends anywhere from $1 million to $12 million-plus, and organizes hordes of poll workers and precincts across the county.
At what happens at the end of the day?
Turnout is generally low and increasing numbers of residents opt to vote by mail anyway.
As Vu tells it, he just wants to save the county money and acknowledge the changing winds when it comes to vote-by-mail.
But nothing is ever as simple as a dollar saved in Sacramento – especially when it comes to something as fundamental as how voters choose their elected officials.
Gonzalez said most people do not understand how difficult this bill was to pass politically. Sure, Republicans barley supported it, but there was strong opposition from many Democrats, too. The instinct to preserve the status quo when it comes to elections among legislators in Sacramento is strong, she said.
“It was kind of funny. I’m in Republican land carrying this bill, pissing off Democrats and voting rights groups and minority groups,” she said. “I had to convince everybody that this is OK, that change is OK.”
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill.