PD Editorial: Sonoma County can make every ballot a mail ballot

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

In 28 states spanning the continent from Florida to Alaska and New Hampshire to Arizona, legislators are proposing ways to make it harder for some people to vote.

Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County, the Board of Supervisors is getting ready to take up a proposal to make voting more convenient for everyone.

The plan, which is set for a vote on Tuesday, is an extension of the vote-by-mail system that was adopted as a coronavirus safeguard for the November election and contributed to big gains in voter turnout.

In Sonoma County, 90.49% of registered voters cast ballots — the best turnout in the state. Voter participation statewide topped 80% for the first time since 1976.

Now, while some states are contemplating schemes to reduce turnout, including draconian restrictions on mail balloting, California counties have an opportunity to lock in last year’s gains. There’s no good reason to turn back.

Fifteen counties, including Napa, already have shifted to universal mail-ballot elections since state lawmakers approved the Voters Choice Act in 2016. Several more have committed to making the switch before the 2022 election.

In those counties, all active voters receive a ballot and a postage-paid return envelope in the mail. Those who want to vote in person still can. There will be fewer polling places, but voters can go to any one of them instead of having an assigned precinct. Moreover, some of them are open for 11 days prior to Election Day. So everybody should have ample opportunity to vote, and all ballots will be checked for proper signatures.

For the vast majority of Sonoma County voters, vote-by-mail elections would be a seamless transition: 84% of the county’s 303,000 registered voters already are signed up for mail ballots. For a typical countywide election, there are 175-225 voting precincts, open for 13 hours and staffed by as many as 1,200 people, to accommodate about 48,000 holdouts. Only a handful of ballots are cast in some precincts.

If the supervisors approve the switch to vote-by-mail elections, as recommended by Deva Maria Proto, the county’s chief elections officer, people who don’t want to put their ballot in the mail would have plenty of other options.

Twenty-one secure drop boxes would be strategically located around the county for four weeks prior to the election. Seven staffed drop-off centers would open 11 days early, expanding to 31 for the final four days before Election Day. Each of the drop-off sites would have a secure connection to voter registration records as well as the ability to ensure that voters hadn’t already cast a ballot.

There’s another consideration — natural disasters. Imagine a wildfire breaking out right before an election, forcing mass evacuations or blocking access to voting precincts. That isn’t so far-fetched. Fire season is practically year-round in California, and some of Sonoma County’s biggest wildfires, including the Tubbs fire in 2017 and the Kincade fire in 2019, started in October and burned for weeks.

During a vote-by-mail election, evacuations would be considerably less disruptive.

Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud helped turn mail ballots and early voting into a partisan issue. It wasn’t always that way. Florida, a red state, allows voters to request mail ballots for any reason. Utah is one of five states that conduct all elections by mail. Their experience shows that voting by mail is secure, efficient, convenient and, once people get accustomed to it, popular.

If Sonoma County supervisors move ahead with a proposed sales tax increase for fire prevention, the election would be in November. Put those ballots, and ballots for any future election, in the mail.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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