Come Election Day, don’t expect to see lines winding outside of your local polling place — in fact, don’t expect to see many polling places at all.
On Nov. 2, Napa County’s 132 precincts will be served by only 23 polling locations, evidence of the drastic switch to a mandatory vote-by-mail system that has occurred over the last four years.
John Tuteur, registrar of voters for Napa County, said the need to “convert” the electorate to the more modern mail-in ballot system was first identified during the November 2006 gubernatorial election.
Despite that election seeing less than 40 percent voter turnout, Tuteur recalls local polling places being slammed with activity, forcing some voters to wait more than an hour before casting their ballot.
“Some people just turned away and didn’t end up voting,” Tuteur said. “We wanted to make sure that never happened again.”
By the time of the next major election — the 2008 presidential election — Tuteur had called upon a California state election code provision allowing county officials to require vote-by-mail participation from people living in precincts with fewer than 250 registered voters.
“That’s how I converted the first 16,000,” Tuteur said, adding that such measures eliminated the need for about 50 polling places through the county.
As a result, additional resources were directed to the remaining polling places, which saw only 10- to 15-minute waits during the busiest times of the day despite the election having the highest voter participation in the past 16 years, Tuteur said.
For the upcoming November election, Tuteur has added another 3,000 voters to the vote-by-mail pool, bringing the total to just under 20,000.
There were about 68,000 registered voters in Napa County as of Sept. 3, according to the California Secretary of State’s Office. Of those potential voters, 47 percent are listed as Democrats, while 28 percent identify as Republicans.
Tuteur said the number of public polling places will be increased in future high-turnout elections such as the 2012 presidential election. The goal will always be to strike a balance between the number of polling places and how well they can accommodate voters, he said.
In addition to freeing up vital resources on Election Day, the move to a vote-by-mail system has brought about an unexpected bump in voter participation.
Tuteur said that during the June primary election, precincts using physical polling places had 20 percent voter turnout, while participation among mail-in voters was about 60 percent.
Compared to statewide figures, Napa County looks to be on the forefront of a growing trend.
Nearly 6 million voters in California are listed as permanent vote-by-mail voters and more than 57 percent of all voters mailed in their ballot during the June primary election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Tuteur estimates that Napa County falls among the state’s top 10 counties in terms of mail-in voters, noting that about 75 percent of all voters do so through a mail-in ballot — either voluntarily or because they reside in a vote-by-mail precinct.
As the number of mail-in voters increases throughout the state, Tuteur points out that candidates have been forced to adjust tactics used to win over undecided voters.
“The final weekend push is less important,” Tuteur said, referring to the traditional high volume of advertisements seen the weekend before Election Day.
This year, mail-in voters need to have their ballots submitted by Friday, Oct. 29, but also have the option of dropping their ballot off at one of the remaining polling places on Election Day.
Mail-in voters also have the option of visiting one of five “Vote By Mail Assistance Centers” where they can drop off ballots or swap out spoiled ballots beginning on Saturday, Oct. 30 and continuing through Tuesday, Nov. 2.
The last day to register for the upcoming election is Monday, Oct. 18.