Charges of election bias are unfounded

By From page A16 | April 21, 2013

By Freddie Oakley

In his op-ed piece last Sunday, John Munn asserts that, “… the Yes on I campaign was greatly assisted by the Yolo County Elections Office.” I understand his angst. He was a dedicated opponent of Measure I, and his side narrowly lost. But his claim that the proponents of Measure I were “greatly assisted” by my office calls into question the integrity of my office and its administration of state election law.

That shocking claim, based on Munn’s speculative opinion of the impact of mail delivery of ballots and the official voter information pamphlet, is unsupported by the facts. My office administers elections in strict compliance with state law. We hold elections when and how the law requires, and we make every effort to do so efficiently.

We are a public agency, spending public money. In the case of a special election such as the referendum on Measure I, every penny comes from the very Davis taxpayers Munn seeks to protect.

Specifically, Munn bases his claim that we “assisted” his opponents on his observation that some voters received their official ballots before they received what he calls their voter guides, which were, in fact (and as required by law) “sample ballots.” He then infers that this disjunction in delivery by the post office affected the outcome of the election.

Finally, he asserts that he had complained before about sample ballots arriving after actual ballots, and thus implies that my office is responsible for any gaps between postal delivery to voters of their actual and sample ballots with respect to Measure I, and thus that any resulting skew in the referendum is the fault of my office.

Here are the legal parameters: Sample ballots must be mailed in a window that begins 40 days before the election, and closes 21 days before the election; actual ballots must be mailed in a window that begins 29 days before the election, and closes seven days before the election.

Here are the practical parameters. Actual ballots require maximum security to assure election integrity. They are individually addressed and coded by my office, and are delivered by us to the post office for first-class delivery on the earliest legal date. Sample ballots — in this and, so far as I know, every other election in the history of the state of California — are printed and drop-mailed by the printer under a bulk-mail permit.

While we do everything we can to make sure that the printer mails the sample ballots (or, in larger elections, the “Voter Information Guide”), we are often in competition with the other 57 counties in California, some much larger than Yolo County, and we don’t always get the special “first-out-the-door” treatment that we seek and, as California’s Lake Woebegon, no doubt deserve.

It is correct, as Munn suggests, that we could essentially guarantee simultaneous delivery of actual ballots and sample ballots by having the sample ballots shipped to us by the printer, and then addressing and mailing each of them for first-class postal delivery. But to do so would compound the expense of an election enormously.

As Munn admits, the effect of differential postal delivery schedules would have been mitigated if the Measure I election had been a traditional vote-at-the-polls election. But the decision to ask for an all-postal election was made by the city of Davis precisely to reduce the taxpayer expense that Munn would now have me vastly inflate.

The only justification for substantially compounding the cost of conducting elections in the manner that Munn wants could only be hard evidence that the current bulk-mail system for delivery of sample ballots and voter information guides has a truly substantial impact on electoral outcomes.

It may be that sound public policy requires that the substantial added cost of first-class postal delivery of information material distributed at public expense is a necessary expense that must be borne in order for elections to be meaningful measures of voters’ wishes. But this very difficult judgment of public policy must be based on more than speculative, campaign-oriented readings of the last election’s tea leaves.

In my office, we do wish to know the impact of differential mail delivery, and have wished to know for some time. In an effort better to understand this and other variables that may influence elections, specifically all-mailed-ballot elections, several years ago we began discussions with the Statewide Database of the Institute for Governmental Studies at Berkeley Law, the law school at UC Berkeley. We have recently signed a contract with them. A team of sociologists, political scientists and election law experts are now undertaking our first joint study, which is of Measure I.

When we have completed this work, we hope it will enable us to improve many facets of election administration. We are grateful for citizen suggestions. We actively solicit them. Often, voters see more clearly than we do how we can improve. We frequently adopt their suggested solutions.

We will continue to do our best with respect to the problem that Munn finds vexatious, but strongly object to his unwarranted suggestion that our office “helps” one campaign or another.

For now, I conclude with a statement I saw recently on a friend’s T-shirt, “Stand back, I’m going to try science!” Let’s see what we learn about how real elections actually work before we make charges of bias and unfairness.

— Freddie Oakley, a Davis resident, is Yolo County’s elected clerk/recorder, whose office is in charge of running local elections.

Freddie Oakley

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