When King County shifted to an all-mail voting system in 2009, it was supposed to increase voter participation.

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When King County shifted to an all-mail voting system in 2009, it was supposed to increase voter participation.

A progress report published Thursday makes the tentative conclusion that it hasn’t.

“It is interesting to note that voting by mail appears to have made no difference in election turnout,” wrote Mike Alvine, the report’s author and an analyst for the Metropolitan King County Council.

Turnout was about the same — about 53 percent — in two comparable general elections, one before and one after the county implemented vote-by-mail.

The council’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee is scheduled to discuss the report Tuesday.

Increasing voter participation was a key objective in switching to a vote-by-mail system, according to a May 2006 council briefing.

Vote-by-mail had the backing of then-County Executive Ron Sims, who also suggested it would increase voter turnout.

Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who chairs the county’s oversight committee, asked Alvine to study three aspects of the all-mail voting system: turnout, cost and accuracy.

The report reviewed data from 27 elections before using an all-mail system and eight elections after, including one Seattle-only election.

King County, with 1.1 million registered voters, is the largest jurisdiction in the country to use an all-mail election system. This year Washington state became the second state — after Oregon — to require all its counties to use mail-only systems. Only Pierce County hadn’t already made the switch.

Before drawing conclusions on vote-by-mail’s effects on turnout, one would want a larger sample size, said Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington.

“It doesn’t mean that you won’t see trends or that the trends will be wrong.”

To be sure of the trends, you have to compare like-elections over several election cycles, Barreto said.

In the County Council report, there are two such data points. One was a comparison of the 2005 and 2009 general elections, both off-year elections when the biggest races were for King County executive and Seattle mayor. Voter turnout was 53.8 percent in 2005 — before the all-mail system — and 53.6 percent in 2009, with vote-by-mail.

The other data point was a comparison of the 2006 and 2010 general elections. Last year turnout was 71 percent, better than in 2006, which was 65.3 percent.

There could be outside reasons — unrelated to vote-by-mail — contributing to higher turnout in 2010, such as tea-party voter mobilization, Barreto said.

Councilmember Bob Ferguson, who supported vote-by-mail as one of many changes to King County’s election system, noted the county used to have two systems: polling stations and mail-in ballots. Most county voters mailed their ballots even before the 2009 switch.

“My view was, we should do one system and do it well, extremely well,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that voting by mail was a cure-all, but it was certainly a key element in a series of reforms that have turned around the department.”

The driving force behind the switch to vote-by-mail was the assurance that every voted would be counted, he said.

In fact, the report’s most definitive finding is that the county is making significant gains in counting votes more accurately, especially since switching to all-mail.

The number of mail ballots received but not counted in a general election dropped from 51 in 2006 to the single digits in 2007 and none in either 2009 or 2010, the report says.

Accuracy improved even as the number of general-election mail ballots received went from 395,531 in 2005 to 786,461 in 2010.

The report suggests vote-by-mail did not increase the cost to running a nonpresidential election, which has remained around $12 million since 2006.

Even as the county incurred new costs, such as creating a new elections facility, vote-by-mail enabled the county to save money by cutting the number of temporary workers during elections from a few thousand, mostly at polling locations, to a couple hundred.

J.B. Wogan: 206-464-2206 or jwogan@seattletimes.com