AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESurfer attacked by shark near Channel Islands calls rescue a ‘Christmas miracle’The rising popularity of mail-in voting in California has politicians – from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to city council members – reaching out to absentees. Instead of spending the bulk of campaign money in a media frenzy the weekend before the election, they synchronize direct mail to arrive at the same time as absentee ballots. Derek Knell, who ran last year for the Novato Unified School District Board, delivered fliers four weeks before the election. When polls closed, he was down 13 votes. After last-minute absentee ballots were tallied, he won by 104. “I was delighted but not surprised,” he said. “People came up to me the week after the election in the grocery store and said they hadn’t mailed the ballot in but delivered it to a polling place at the last minute, so I had a good feeling I might win.” Voting decline Advocates hope the convenience of absentee ballots could halt or reverse a decades-long decline in voter turnout. High absentee voting also lets cash-strapped counties get by with fewer poll workers and voting machines. SAN FRANCISCO – A majority of California voters may cast absentee ballots in the Nov. 7 election, a milestone that’s forcing politicians to rethink campaign strategies and prompting registrars to streamline ballot-counting procedures. The growth of absentee voting in the most populous state echoes a nationwide trend that’s most pronounced in the West. Oregon has used mail-in ballots almost exclusively for a decade. More than half of all votes are absentee in Washington, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. Marin County, just north of San Francisco, has sent ballots to 54 percent of its nearly 147,000 registered voters. And registrar Elaine Ginnold expects to mail thousands more before the Oct. 31 deadline for requesting absentee ballots. In the June primary, 57 percent of Marin voters were absentee. “People lead busy lives, and voting by mail is a wonderful benefit,” Ginnold said. “Even if we expanded voting at the polls for an entire weekend, I think absentee ballots would be more convenient for a majority of people here.” But critics note that Oregon hasn’t boosted turnout for statewide elections since moving to mail-in ballots 10 years ago. Although turnout has increased in some local and county elections, it hasn’t dramatically expanded Oregon’s overall voter demographics. “People who aren’t going to vote won’t do it even if it’s as easy as putting something in the mail,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, called absentee voting an “accident waiting to happen,” allowing people to vote weeks before campaigning ends. “Suppose Osama bin Laden was caught the Friday before the election, or the Monday before the election the stock market crashes,” Gans said. “There would have been 20 million votes cast without that information.” Absentee voting peaked with the June primary, when 47 percent of 5.2 million California voters mailed in their ballots. That’s up from about 25 percent in 2000. In 1970 – decades before registrars encouraged people without physical handicaps or special conditions to become permanent absentee voters – only 3 percent of California voters were absentee. More than half the voters in densely populated counties such as Marin, Alameda and Sacramento are expected to mail ballots in the upcoming election. Rural counties have long been strong supporters of absentee ballots. In Plumas County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, 47 percent of registered voters had received absentee ballots by last week – including county Clerk-Recorder-Registrar Kathleen Williams, who lives in Cromberg, population 140, where the closest polling place is 15 miles away. “It’s the easiest way to vote – at home at your kitchen table, where you can study the issues and candidates, vote on them and drop it in the mailbox,” said Williams, who expects her county’s absentee vote count to exceed 50 percent. Response rate Some state officials have reined in their enthusiasm for absentee voting. Registrars are particularly worried about delayed results. The newest ballot lists candidates for eight statewide offices, 13 propositions and local ballot measures in nearly all 58 counties. Registrars expect absentee voters to postpone mailing ballots until the last minute; many will drop off ballots at polling places – typically the last ballots counted. Alameda County supervisors voted unanimously in January to lobby for an all-mail June primary. But after 52 percent of voters cast absentee ballots, the county had to delay results of the Oakland mayor’s race for days as workers opened envelopes, compared signatures with those stored on county computers and fed ballots through scanners. “It came back to bite us,” said Guy Ashley, management analyst for the registrar, which is assigning more people to count absentee ballots around Nov. 7. “We like people to vote early, but it does require additional staffing, and our office is already filled with trays of returned absentee ballots.” Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir said his county will likely exceed 50 percent mail-in, but he doubts California as a whole will. As counties encourage permanent absentee voting, more people decide not to return the ballot, or they mail it too late, so the response rate of permanent absentee voters has been declining. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! 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