Voting Booth May Now Become a Post Office Box

California county may blaze trail for voting by mail to boost turnout

THE problem is as old as democracy and as new as the latest elections - how to get people to turn out to vote.

In Virginia, 36 percent of the eligible voters participated in Tuesday's elections, down from 39 percent in 1989. New Jersey did slightly better: 41 percent.

Only 1 in 5 voters showed up at the polls in Houston, while the nation's marquee mayoral contest, New York, drew a healthier 54 percent.

One other jurisdiction pleased with this week's turnout is Stanislaus County, Calif. The almond and grape-growing region in the Central Valley saw some 40 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots - nothing to erect a monument over but far more than the 18 percent that usually participate in off-year special elections. The tally was also higher than the overall California turnout of 34 percent.

Stanislaus's burst of civic mindedness was the result an unusual experiment in postal democracy. Voters in the agricultural-rich county didn't trek to the polls. They voted by mail.

The county is one of a growing number of jurisdictions across the country testing mail-only voting as a way to boost turnout and save money.

The experiments are being closely watched by elections officials in a number of states - as well as by the two major parties, whose political fortunes can rise and fall with the slightest hiccup in voter participation.

``We see the idea slowly but steadily proceeding,'' says Peggy Sims, a researcher with the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C.

At least 14 states have tried a voting-by-mail system at the local level. It has generally be used in nonpartisan elections - in votes to fill seats on a local water board, for instance.

Last June, Oregon became the first to use balloting by mail statewide, in a special election on a housing initiative. The measure was not particularly controversial. For a special referendum next Tuesday to establish a state sales tax, which is controversial, Oregon has gone back to the polling booth. (Oregon political battle, Page 3.)

Therein lies one of the criticisms of mail-only voting. Some states and localities have been reluctant to go the vote-at-home approach in general elections and hotly contested races out of concern about voter fraud.

Under most systems, ballots are mailed to eligible voters several weeks before the election. Voters have to return them by election day. For those who forgot to mail in envelopes, Stanislaus County manned 11 receiving centers where voters could drop off ballots on Tuesday.

Once in hand, election officials checked the signatures on the mail-ins with the signatures they had of the voter on record.

The concern about fraud comes in before the ballots are mailed. Critics say that when people vote from their sofa, out of sight of election officials, there is no way of knowing who might have influenced the one casting the ballot - or even who filled it out. Others downplay such concerns.

``The potential for fraud is always there,'' says Stanislaus County Clerk Karen Mathews. ``I don't feel like the risks are any greater with this system.''

While disagreements may exist over the potential for abuse, there is less argument over the impact on voter participation. In Oregon, mail-only elections usually draw 5 to 10 percent more participants.

``Without a doubt the participation has been higher when the elections are done by mail,'' says Vicki Ervin, director of elections for Multnomah County, which includes Portland.

Some jurisdictions are saving money as well. Because they didn't have to staff polling stations and print as many ballots, Stanislaus County will save at least $95,000.

Still, not everyone is impressed with the idea. Some people prefer going to a polling place - for cultural and other reasons. San Francisco residents rejected a move a few years ago to make it easier to vote by mail.

``There is a kind of reluctance out there, even among voters, to make voting too easy,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says voting by mail is a gimmick that may increase participation but doesn't address why people are disenchanted with politics - and thus don't vote often.

The state Legislature will take up these and other arguments when it reviews the Stanislaus experiment, which it approved as a pilot project. Some elections officials would like to take the system statewide.

Absentee balloting has been growing steadily in the state - and now accounts for about 18 percent of the total vote. The economic argument could also become a powerful one if California has to hold more special elections because of term limits.

Before any changes are made, though, the Legislature will weigh all the political ramifications of a mail-only system, which could be considerable.

For one thing, it could reduce the value of last-minute political mailers.

And what would become of the ubiquitous exit poll? Traditionally, a higher voter turnout has benefited Democrats. But Republicans usually win the absentee vote. Go figure.

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