THE problem is as old as democracy and as new as the latest
elections - how to get people to turn out to vote.
In Virginia, 36 percent of the eligible voters participated in
Tuesday's elections, down from 39 percent in 1989. New Jersey did
slightly better: 41 percent.
Only 1 in 5 voters showed up at the polls in Houston, while the
nation's marquee mayoral contest, New York, drew a healthier 54
One other jurisdiction pleased with this week's turnout is
Stanislaus County, Calif. The almond and grape-growing region in
the Central Valley saw some 40 percent of the eligible voters cast
ballots - nothing to erect a monument over but far more than the 18
percent that usually participate in off-year special elections. The
tally was also higher than the overall California turnout of 34
Stanislaus's burst of civic mindedness was the result an unusual
experiment in postal democracy. Voters in the agricultural-rich
county didn't trek to the polls. They voted by mail.
The county is one of a growing number of jurisdictions across
the country testing mail-only voting as a way to boost turnout and
The experiments are being closely watched by elections officials
in a number of states - as well as by the two major parties, whose
political fortunes can rise and fall with the slightest hiccup in
"We see the idea slowly but steadily proceeding," says Peggy
Sims, a researcher with the Federal Election Commission in
At least 14 states have tried a voting-by-mail system at the
local level. It has generally be used in nonpartisan elections - in
votes to fill seats on a local water board, for instance.
Last June, Oregon became the first to use balloting by mail
statewide, in a special election on a housing initiative. The
measure was not particularly controversial. For a special
referendum next Tuesday to establish a state sales tax, which is
controversial, Oregon has gone back to the polling booth. (Oregon
political battle, Page 3.)
Therein lies one of the criticisms of mail-only voting. Some
states and localities have been reluctant to go the vote-at-home
approach in general elections and hotly contested races out of
concern about voter fraud.
Under most systems, ballots are mailed to eligible voters
several weeks before the election. Voters have to return them by
election day. For those who forgot to mail in envelopes, Stanislaus
County manned 11 receiving centers where voters could drop off
ballots on Tuesday.
Once in hand, election officials checked the signatures on the
mail-ins with the signatures they had of the voter on record. …