If Napa County conducted special elections using mail-in ballots only, it could save an estimated $35,000 per election, John Tuteur, the county’s registrar of voters, said.

Tuteur will present this estimate to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday when it weighs whether to endorse legislation that would allow counties to mandate mail-in ballots for a variety of special elections.

Last week, Tuteur brought this item before the county’s Legislative Subcommittee, but members balked at endorsing the proposal, saying it deserved a hearing by the full board.

District 3 Supervisor Diane Dillon, who sits on the Legislative Subcommittee, wanted more information about Tuteur’s claim that mail-in elections would save the county money. 

“We’re being told that it’s cheaper, but we still don’t have the financial analysis that we, and that the voters of Napa County, need in order to support that,” she said last week.

Rather than lobby Sacramento to pass a mail-in elections law, Dillon said the county had more pressing legislative priorities, such as changing state-mandated housing requirements.

Because the county is considering supporting potential legislation at the state level, Tuesday’s item must be approved unanimously.

Tuteur has already “converted” precincts with fewer than 250 registered voters to vote-by-mail-only. In these cases, the cost of closing down a polling place was essentially a “financial wash,” Tuteur said.

These precinct conversions allowed him to shift employees to polling places and eliminate long lines, Tuteur said. They were not done to save money, he said.

The county could have saved $35,250 if last November’s election had been exclusively by-mail and he didn’t have to operate any precinct polling stations, Tuteur said.

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In that election, only 7,468 voters used a polling place, bringing the per-voter cost of providing polling places to $4.72. Had the election been conducted on a vote-by-mail only basis, the per-voter cost would have been $1.22, Tuteur said.

Much of the savings generated by switching to a vote-by-mail-only system comes with eliminating the costs specific to the traditional system, such as setting up voting stations and paying poll workers to staff them, Tuteur said. Poll workers cost more than $17,000 in November, he said.

Essentially, savings come not from the elimination of each individual polling place, but from the fact “that you don’t have to gear up for a polling place election at all,” Tuteur said.

Such “gearing up” efforts include providing the state-mandated electronic voting machines — mainly serving visually impaired voters — at each polling place; the roughly 15,000 sample ballots that must be mailed to polling place voters; and the trucking costs associated with transporting the equipment and ballots to and from the registrar’s office, Tuteur said.

“You only save money on trucking (in voting machines) if you’re not bringing any machines,” Tuteur said. This logic extends to other areas such as programming voting machines, mailing sample ballots and paying tally boards to be present on election night, he said.

If Tuteur’s request is approved by the board, and is successfully lobbied in Sacramento, it could translate into savings almost immediately, as Gov. Jerry Brown has already announced plans to request a special election in June.

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