SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — More than 1.4 million Californians already have voted in the state’s primary, and when all the ballots are counted it’s expected as many as three-quarters of all voters will have used mail-in ballots to make their choices.
California election officials mailed more than 11.5 million ballots to registered voters. As long as a ballot is postmarked by June 5 it can arrive up to three days later and still be counted.
Ballots mailed early can be counted prior to the close of polls, but ones received on or after Election Day can take longer to process than ballots cast in person. Voters must sign their mail ballots and it takes time for election officials to verify the signatures match those on file.
Because many ballots arrive near the deadline, the counting process can take days and sometimes weeks for close races to determine a winner.
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Traditionally, only voters who request mail ballots get them. But this year, five counties — Sacramento, Nevada, San Mateo, Madera and Napa — are experimenting by sending mail ballots to all registered voters. The hope is that the numbers of people voting will increase.
Voters in those counties can mail back their ballots or put them in drop boxes located throughout the counties. They can also vote in person at any county vote center. In the five counties, vote centers replaced polling places, which were more numerous but required voters to cast ballots at their assigned neighborhood polling place.
Nevada County Clerk-Recorder Gregory Diaz described the changes as a “heavy lift,” including finding accessible locations for the vote centers. He said he expects it will take a few election cycles before it prompts major changes in voter behavior, but that ultimately the new model will make running elections more efficient, in part because the county has to staff fewer polling locations.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to have a leaner ship, plus we’re going to reduce costs and we’re going to increase voter participation,” he said.
Madera County Clerk-Recorder Rebecca Martinez said so far the level of voter participation is on par with what she saw in 2014, the last midterm election cycle. It will likely take time for voters to learn that the new vote centers are open on weekends and holidays, Martinez said.
The primary features races for U.S. Senate, governor and all other statewide offices, as well all 53 U.S. House members and most state legislators. There also are elections for local offices and high-profile recalls aimed at Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman in Orange County and Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who was targeted because critics said he gave a light sentence to a former Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted a woman he met at a party.
The percentage of Californians voting by mail has steadily increased. The highest percentage in a statewide primary or general election was the 2014 primary, when 69.4 percent of ballots were by mail, according to data from the Secretary of State.
Public data from California counties compiled by Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan organization, found about 12 percent of mail-in ballots have been returned so far. Political Data Vice President Paul Mitchell anticipates 70 to 75 percent of ballots will be cast by mail. He said he anticipates 6 million or more people — about a third of registered voters — will cast ballots in the primary.
About 44 percent of ballots have been returned by Democrats and 34 percent by Republicans. The remaining 22 percent were returned by people registered with other parties or without party preference.