Although Election Day, Nov. 6, is still a long way away, Sonoma County voters will begin casting their ballots this week.
On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office began delivering ballots to the post office to be sent to the county's permanent vote-by-mail voters. Voters can immediately begin returning these ballots as soon as they fill them out.
By a recent count, these voters number almost 62 percent of the registered voters in the county. What started as a convenience for voters expecting to be absent from their home on Election Day has become a new mode of voting.
In conversation with longtime Registrar Janice Atkinson, she said that she had not yet worked up an estimate for voter turnout for this election. However, while the vote-by-mail turnout usually exceeds that of poll voting in off-year elections, given this is a presidential year, she expects the turnout for mail-in and poll voters to be about the same.
Atkinson told me she originally was skeptical of vote-by-mail but now believes in it: "If we mail it, they will vote," she said. In fact, she now favors a transition to complete mail voting.
The June 5 primary election provided some thought-provoking results. In Sonoma County, a total of 115,863 ballots were cast, of which nearly 76 percent were mail-in ballots.
Less than 25 percent of ballots cast were at precinct polling places, a definitive ratio of 3 to 1 in favor of the mail-in ballot.
As an inspector at a Sonoma precinct for the June 5 primary, I was struck by the strong preference of voters to cast their votes by mail — but with typical quirky human behavior.
Precinct 1801 was located at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building, supported by a staff of four: three clerks and myself as inspector in charge. Our voter registry showed 1,404 voters had been assigned to our precinct. Of those, 891 voters were issued mail-in ballots a month before the election.
Thus, 63 percent of the precinct's registered voters did not intend to go to the polling place. But matters turned out differently.