California Absentee Voters Get a Head Start in Presidential Election

California has more voters and more delegates than any other state. So why do Californians have to wait to vote until people in Iowa and New Hampshire cast their ballots? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde explains how you can cast your ballot the same day as folks in New Hampshire.

Kitty Felde: It's easy. All you need to do is sign up as an absentee voter. You'll give up the camaraderie of casting your ballot with friends and neighbors at your local polling place in favor of a mailbox, but you'll be first to choose a candidate for president. Oregon voters switched to a vote-by-mail system 10 years ago. Political scientist Paul Gronke at Oregon's Reed College says the trend is growing, fed in part by the people who run the elections.

Paul Gronke: A lot of local officials have turned around and said "Well, I've got a system and don't make me buy my third or fourth or fifth version of machines. I've got some machines in place that I'm already comfortable with and a system in place and it's called absentee balloting. So let me move to that."

Felde: When you vote by mail, there's a paper trail. A pile of absentee ballots rather than a tally in a machine. Reed College's Paul Gronke says a paper ballot can reassure those who worry about whether the election tally was correct. But a nationwide study conducted by Caltech and the University of Utah found that absentee voters were actually less confident that their ballot would be counted accurately. Thad Hall is a political science professor at the University of Utah.

Thad Hall: When you cast an absentee ballot, you are then putting your ballot in the hands of multiple other people. It goes through the postal service and then it goes through the process of being examined at the local election official's office and they determine whether or not you've signed it and all of that, and so people may just have a little bit less confidence because it has to go through these other steps in the process.
Felde: But if that's the case, then why is there a growing number of people who want to vote by mail?
Hall: You know, it's an interesting conundrum in our findings in that we do see a big push toward people voting absentee, and I think especially in California where ballots are so long and complicated. You know, people really need the time to be able to sit down and sort through the issues.

Felde: These days, nearly half of California voters cast ballots by mail. But Secretary of State Debra Bowen says it's unlikely that California will move to a mandatory vote by mail system like Oregon's any time soon.

Debra Bowen: In California, our biggest challenge would be just logistics, and in Los Angeles County in particular.

Felde: Bowen says before the '96 presidential election, L.A. County's registrar's office got as many as 30,000 new voter registration cards every day.

Bowen: And they are all coming in handwritten, so you've got a whole bunch of civil service employees who are sitting there trying to decipher people's handwriting, get it into the computer, run the required check against the Social Security number database and the driver's license database, fill in the gaps...

Felde: But you don't have to wait for a new state law to vote by mail every election. All you have to do is sign up as a permanent absentee voter. I asked L.A. County's Registrar/Recorder Connie McCormack how.

Felde: So, if I really want to be an early bird and I want to, you know, beat New Hampshire, and I really want to cast a ballot early. I want to cast it just as soon as you can get it to me ... What do I do to tell you to send that ballot to me?
Connie McCormack: There's a permanent absentee voting process and a regular application process. The permanents will all be mailed on January 7th. We have about 400,000 of those in L.A. County, almost 500,000. If you apply, you can begin applying even in advance of that and we'll mail it by January 7th. Or you can come into our office!

Felde: The office is on Imperial Highway in Norwalk. And if you want to vote even earlier, there's "early voting" – touch screen machines at selected locations.

McCormack: The first day of early voting is January 7th. So you can just come in our office and vote on January 7th, which is the day before New Hampshire.

Felde: Now California won't count your vote until the polls close on February 5th, but you'll know that when the candidates called for a show of hands, you got your hand up first.