By John Munn
The Measure I election is over, and a 4 percent majority of the 40 percent of voters who participated favors a surface water project. For full disclosure, I was an active opponent of Measure I because of its enormous cost for a marginal improvement in water quality. But this is not about Measure I. It is about how the election outcome was influenced by Yolo County Elections Office mailing procedures.
Early poll results released by the Yes on I campaign indicated that 63 percent of voters supported the city’s water plan and only 11 percent opposed it, which left 26 percent undecided.
This was not unexpected since only information from Yes on I supporters about problems with groundwater quality and sustainability had been presented, and it is natural to want clean water.
The County Elections Office mailed the Measure I ballots using first-class mail on Monday, Feb. 4. I received mine on Wednesday, Feb. 6. Meanwhile, voter guides containing arguments for and against Measure I were sent by bulk mail from somewhere outside of Yolo County. I received my copy of the voter guide on Tuesday, Feb. 12, and heard about others that did not arrive until the following week.
While voter guides were still in the mail, people were voting. The earliest that I could have used the voter guide to make a decision about how to vote on Measure I would have been after my mail arrived on Tuesday. Then my ballot could have been mailed on Wednesday and received at the County Elections Office no sooner than Thursday, Feb. 14.
Assuming that my experience was typical, voters who mailed ballots before Wednesday, Feb. 13, would not have seen the voter guide arguments. I know that this is an approximation, since some voters may have received their voter guide sooner, while others received it later.
Based on data from the County Elections Office, 4,738 ballots had been received by Feb. 13. So it is likely that nearly 32 percent of the final 14,884 total votes counted were cast without either seeing the voter guide or being exposed to information countering initial publicity supporting Measure I.
If the initial Yes on I poll was accurate and assuming that half of the undecided voters opted to support Measure I (which seems likely based on other information from the poll), then Measure I was already leading by nearly 1,140 votes after the first week of voting, which is only about 70 votes less than its final winning margin. This should be a conservative estimate since it assumes single-day mail delivery and same-day ballot logging.
Support for Measure I began to fade as facts about the actual quality and sustainability of our current groundwater supply became available, along with increasing awareness of the enormous cost of the proposed surface water project, the non-competitive bidding process and long-term private operation. In fact, a majority of the votes received on the final day of the election opposed Measure I.
This occurred despite much greater spending by the Yes on I campaign that permitted use of paid staff, more mailers, telephone calls, professional polling and get-out-the-vote efforts.
However, the biggest advantage of the Yes on I campaign turned out to be the County Elections Office mailing process that delivered voter guides containing the pro and con arguments a week or more after the ballots. As a result, the Measure I election was neither fair nor unbiased.
And the Elections Office should have known better, because this is not the first time voter guides have arrived late. A very similar pattern was seen in last year’s June primary election. I know that the County Elections Office was informed about this, because I told them. I have also heard that ballots arrived before voter guides in at least one of the Davis school district’s all-mail parcel tax elections.
It is wrong for the County Elections Office to follow a process favoring high-profile and better-funded campaigns that can reach voters ahead of the voter guide. And it is easy to fix. Since experience shows that it takes about a week longer for the voter guides to arrive, simply mail them a week or more before the ballots, or delay mailing ballots until voter guides are known to have arrived.
The Elections Office’s current process is not illegal, since state law simply requires voter guides to arrive within a specified number of days before “election day.” But this law was created at a time when nearly all voting took place at voting booths on a single election day, and it is not relevant to what happens in today’s all-mail ballot elections or even in traditional elections where more than half of the vote is now coming from mail-in ballots.
The bottom line here is that the Yes on I campaign was greatly assisted by the Yolo County Elections Office. It is not possible to know if Measure I would have passed or failed in a truly fair election. But we can be certain that the vote against Measure I would have been greater and provided even less support for the enormous water rate increases that our five City Council members have now approved.
— John Munn is a Davis resident and former president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association. He also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city of Davis challenging the legality of the newly adopted water rates under Proposition 218.