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It may not feel like it yet, but voting in the June 3 primary election will begin next week.

About 170,500 mail-in ballots are due to hit the post office Monday and will start arriving in voters' hands on Thursday or Friday.

Seventy percent of Sonoma County's 241,931 registered voters will receive mail-in ballots for the June 3 election, a level that politicos and election officials hail as evidence of citizen engagement in the democratic process.

Statewide, just 51 percent of voters were signed up for mail-in ballots in 2012.

But if history repeats itself, about 30,000 of the local voters will clog the process by waiting until Election Day to hand-carry their ballots to a polling place.

Since the signature on the envelope of every mail-in ballot must be verified, there's no time to count them on election night, said Gloria Colter, the county's assistant registrar of voters. The walked-in ballots are counted during the 28-day post-election canvassing period, delaying the outcome of close local races.

"Candidates are constantly pounding on us, (asking) 'Are we there yet?'" Colter said.

In the last countywide election in November 2012, there were 127,133 mail-in ballots returned prior to Election Day and 28,142 brought to the polls that day.

Three races — for the 10th Assembly District, Sebastopol City Council and Santa Rosa school board — were left hanging as the canvass got underway.

Challenger Marc Levine of San Rafael ultimately won the Assembly seat by more than 4,400 votes, but former Assemblyman Michael Allen, who trailed by only 468 votes the morning after the election, did not concede until the final count on Nov. 30.

"The political insiders go crazy over it," said Leo Wallach, Levine's campaign consultant, but he shrugged off the impact of procrastinating voters.

"I think it's a product of modern life. People are busy," Wallach said. "Sometimes the only pressure that will work is that final deadline."

Overall, voting by mail has been beneficial, he said.

"It gives you a chance to sit down with your ballot and take a moment to be more deliberative."

Back when most people voted at the polls, all but the extreme cliffhangers were settled on election night. Fifty years ago, just 4 percent of California's 7.2 million votes cast in the 1964 general election were absentee ballots.

Since 2002, when the state adopted a permanent vote-by-mail program, mail-in balloting has burgeoned from 27 percent of votes that year to 51 percent in 2012.

Colter, a 27-year veteran in the elections office, rejected the idea that mail-in voting has obstructed democracy.

"It messes with the news media," she quipped, then turned serious. "The theory has long been either you want things done fast or you want things done right."

Some county elections departments post updates during the canvass period, but Sonoma County does not. The reason, Colter said, is to avoid announcing see-saw results in close contests.

Taking four weeks to confirm election results "does not delay the transfer of power or the will of voters," said Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

"Accurate, fair elections are more important than speed and the best way to ensure voters have a chance to be included in the democratic process is to provide more options, not fewer," Velayas said.

State legislators have considered expanding vote-by-mail rules by counting ballots postmarked on or before Election Day but delivered afterwards.

Herb Williams, a veteran Santa Rosa political consultant, said the mail option encourages citizens to vote.

The process divides political campaigns into three segments. They first target voters who mail their ballots immediately, then those who wait a few weeks, and finally, those who take them to the polls, Williams said, noting that he schedules campaign mailers for each of the three intervals.

The list of voters who haven't sent their mail-in ballots is a public record, and Williams said he uses it to selectively call people likely to support one of his clients and urge the person to vote.

Those calls annoy 10 to 12 percent of the voters, "but you get 88 percent," Williams said. "The odds are in your candidate's favor."

Meanwhile, it's been a busy week in the elections department, with all 14 workers and managers — plus 48 temporary staffers — working two eight-hour days and two more 12-hour days to stuff mail-in ballots into more than 170,500 envelopes.

It's a tedious chore, leavened by the camaraderie of temps who've handled the chore for years.

Working at a conference room table with six other envelope stuffers, Theo Lashley said their conversations ease the work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. "It goes around the table like tides," he said. "Everyone has something to say."

Most of the ballots will go to the post office on Monday for sorting and subsequent delivery, said Debra Russotti, elections services supervisor.

Voters should wait until May 14 before calling to inquire about a mail-in ballot that hasn't arrived, she said.

Voters are advised not to return their ballots in the mail after May 28.

In hopes of reducing the flow of mail-in ballots on Election Day, the elections department will operate drop-off sites around the county on May 31.

All mail-in ballots must be returned to the registrar's office or any polling place by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

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