Vote-by-mail ballots started going out May 8 to Kern County residents who've requested them, but political candidates apparently still have time to make their cases.

The Kern County Elections Division has issued 223,155 vote-by-mail ballots thus far, and just 4,860 have been returned.

"Just" is a relative term: 4,723 of those ballots were waiting for Elections Division employees when they showed up for work Monday. That's less than 3 percent, but don't bother pointing that out to county workers trying to sort through the deluge.

"A huge load this morning," Elections Division chief Karen Rhea said.

For purposes of comparison, the Elections Division's haul of mail-in-ballots on the first Monday following the issuing of ballots in June 2014 — the last gubernatorial election year —  was a whopping 13. Thirteen.

The question is why so many more this year. Could it be the open governor's race? A nation polarized by a confrontational president? Interesting local races for Sheriff and District Attorney?

"I couldn’t say," Rhea said. "I am just hopeful that it translates to improved voter turnout."

No peeking is allowed. The county division doesn't begin processing vote-by-mail ballots until 10 business days prior to the election, and no results are produced until the close of polls June 5.

Campaign signs heralding another election season dot the landscape throughout much of the county and especially at busy intersections in Bakersfield. The northeast corner of Stockdale Highway and Coffee Road, a long-undeveloped island bounded on two sides by six lanes of asphalt, finally has commercial activity, but there's still plenty of room for signs.

They're all supposed to gone within 10 days after the election (15 days outside Bakersfield city limits). And, yes, that applies even to losing candidates.

Signs must fall within state and local size parameters: residential lawn signs can be a maximum of 6 square feet and 4 feet high.  Signs placed in commercial, industrial and agricultural settings can be a maximum of 32 square feet and 6 feet high.

Signs cannot obstruct drivers' clear sight of traffic, and Caltrans officials say they'll remove signs that fail to meet that requirement — and bill the appropriate candidates for their trouble.

Code enforcement cops won't be coming after signage scofflaws, however.

"We only handle enforcement of the ordinance on a complaint basis," said Billy Owens of Bakersfield Code Enforcement. "We don't have the manpower to go out and police it."

Signs can go up 90 days in advance of an election and campaigns must file statements of responsibility with Caltrans certifying a person who will be responsible for removing the signs within that 10-day (or 15-day) window. But that, too, is complaint driven.

Not that it matters all that much. Although many candidates assume that the number of lawn signs they see somehow correlates to the level of support they enjoy, studies show they play very little a role in final election outcomes.

"It appears that signs typically have a modest effect on advertising candidates’ vote shares — an effect that is probably greater than zero but unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome of a contest that would otherwise be decided by more than a few percentage points," Donald Green, a professor at Columbia University who has studied voter outreach techniques for decades, told the Washington Post in October 2015.

The effect of such signs, his study suggests, is about the same as direct mail.

Despite that, the use of lawn signs in campaigns quadrupled nationally between 1984 and 2012, according to one study cited by the Post.

The Post aggregated the results of four studies that looked at the effectiveness of campaign signs and found a 1.7 percentage-point boost to the candidate from the signs. Based on that, signs might have mattered in one of 50 races for Congress and the Senate between 2006 and 2012.

So, added to the fact they're expensive, logistically tricky to distribute and occasionally subjected to thievery and other intrigues, they don’t appear to do much of anything.

However the campaigns play out, the Elections Division will try to be ready. In addition to its 15 permanent employees, the division has beefed up with 43 temporary and extra help workers to help with initiative petition processing, poll worker training, vote by mail sorting and supply and equipment preparation. Rhea will be adding another 12 temporary employees on Monday to shore up vote-by-mail operations.

Those hires do not include poll worker vacancies. Reserve applicants may be called out should the need arise.

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