We Californians can be proud of ourselves this election season. Thanks in large part to online voter registration, which debuted in October, more than 1 million new voters are registered to vote in Tuesday's election. That brings the voter rolls to a record 18.2 million. More than 780,000 people signed up using the new online registration system -- and 61.5 percent of them were age 34 and under, according to the Los Angeles Times. That's excellent news for a state in which voter apathy has been embarrassingly rampant for years.
California is also seeing a surge in mail-in voting. About half of all votes are expected to be cast by mail this election, up from 42 percent in 2008 and 25 percent in 2000. In Kern County, the number of mail-in ballots issued to for Tuesday's election is up almost 28 percent over 2008.
Why is this good? Voting by mail is largely seen as a way to boost voter participation. Instead of having to make time on Election Day to go to the polls, and potentially face inclement weather and long lines, voters get 29 days, up to and including Election Day, to mull over the ballot, mark their choices and mail in their votes. Mail-in voting provides a measure of flexibility that ought to significantly reduce the obstacles that people may face due to time, distance or mobility. To its credit, Kern County has promoted vote-by-mail voting over the years for exactly that reason -- to increase participation. (And for those who think mail-in voting is prone to fraud, know this: Vote-by-mail ballots may be more secure than ballots cast in person. A pair of human eyes actually checks to see if the signature on the ballot envelope matches the voter's signature in the database. That doesn't typically happen at the polls.)
There is a potential downside to all this innovation. As The Associated Press reported late last week, the uptick in vote-by-mail participation combined with the number of highly competitive races throughout the state this year, means some races might not be decided for several days.
In general, mail-in ballots that arrive in elections offices before Election Day get counted in advance and included in Election Day results. But the ballots that get dropped off at polling locations on Election Day often take longer to count because the elections staff is busy working on the in-person vote. And mail-in voters are more likely to walk their ballots into polling stations during presidential contest years than in other elections. That is, in part, why nearly a quarter of the state's total vote in the 2008 presidential election didn't get counted in the election night tally.
There is no imperative for elections officials to get the vote counted on Election Day. Same-night vote tallies are always considered unofficial and there's a 28-day period for counties to formally certify their vote. But in our immediate-gratification society, and especially in high-stakes elections like the one Tuesday, the public wants results immediately, if not sooner. And it's in the public interest to get election results -- even unofficial results -- out there as soon as possible because, well, that what voters want. It keeps them interested and involved in the voting process. Case in point: It was voter interest that overwhelmed the California secretary of state's website in 2010, causing it to crash. Kern County's website has also been known to slow to painful crawls on Election Day.
To that end, elections officials could take some steps to increase the accuracy of election night results. They could encourage mail-in voters to send their ballots several days ahead of Election Day to help ensure speedier results -- perhaps by creating a "soft" deadline for mail-in ballots.
To be sure, increasing voter participation and ensuring fair and secure elections should be the state's top priority -- not worrying about whether voters get a "final score" by the time they're ready for bed. But with a trend toward increased mail-in voting clearly in evidence, the state should also be looking for ways to handle election returns in a way that streamlines the process and satisfies the electorate's desire for reasonably prompt results.