Five counties tried new voting method to turbo-charge turnout. Did it work?

Automatically mail every registered voter a ballot, they said. Get rid of all those neighborhood polling places. Replace them with convenient dropboxes and a few “super store” voting centers. That will boost turnout, they said, and hoped.

In the June primary, five counties tried it. The result? Their average turnout shot up by 12 percent—but so did the state average.

After record-low turnout in the last midterm election, Madera, Napa, Nevada, Sacramento and San Mateo counties were the first five counties in the state to opt to participate in a new election model passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in an effort to get more people to the polls.

Compared to 2014, Napa, Nevada and Sacramento counties had a 10 to 12 percent increase in voter turnout this year. Two were outliers: Madera’s turnout increased 8 percent, and San Mateo’s shot up 17 percent.

Let’s put that into perspective. Voter turnout in the 2014 primary was dismally low, so it didn’t take much to outdo that year’s turnout with 37.6 percent of registered voters casting ballots.

One way to look at it is the counties didn’t lose voters after making the biggest election change in recent history. The other interpretation is that the switch failed to increase turnout beyond that of other California counties who ran their elections the old way.

It’s obvious the vote center model was particularly successful in San Mateo County. One thing to note: San Mateo was one of a few counties that tested out parts of the new model, mailing ballots to every registered voter during a local election in 2015. As a result, last month’s primary voters and the city knew what to expect.

“We had a pretty intensive engagement process,” said Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer in San Mateo county. “That’s the key…and voter education and outreach was a high priority.”

In the other four counties, the lack of a “tryout phase” may have hurt turnout. In Sacramento County and no doubt elsewhere, voters were puzzledby the difference between voting centers and dropbox locations—confusion that the county is looking to remedy before the general election.

“We wanted to get all of the information to the voters in a very compact way, and I think that was a bit confusing,” said Alice Jarboe, interim registrar of Sacramento County. “Moving forward, I won’t make a combined document. It will be two separate documents. It will be very clear that ‘this section is for dropboxes, and this section is for vote centers.’”

Madera elections officials didn’t respond to questions about why their turnout growth fell behind the state average. But Rebecca Martinez, that county’s registrar, said shortly after the primary:  “A lot of voters told us they didn’t read the materials,” Martinez said. “They didn’t know that we’d been open 10 days before that. They didn’t know.”

Researchers across the state are collecting data from the June primary and the upcoming November general election to better assess how voters responded to the new system.

After 2018, other counties, except Los Angeles, may opt to switch to the new election model.

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