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Tim Myers: Significance of voting by mail vs. polls

Myers' Musings

Posted: May 5, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 5, 2012 1:55 a.m.

A Santa Clarita City Council election trivia question: Define the significance of these two strings of numbers: 75 percent-25 percent and 8 percent-92 percent.

Give up? The first set of numbers constitutes the breakdown of vote-by-mail and poll votes in the City Council election from this year. The second set of numbers constitutes the break down between absentee ballots and poll votes in the city formation election in 1987.

Numbers don’t lie. In the 25-year history, and consistent with trends in the entire state of California, significantly more participating voters cast ballots by mail rather than schlepping to the polls on Election Day. In the case of the city of Santa Clarita, turnout remains relatively constant at a low range, so people merely switched their voting methodology. Why?

One very important difference: Note that in 1987, the numbers referenced the term “absentee ballot.” In those days, one needed to show they would indeed find themselves absent from the jurisdiction on Election Day and go through some trouble and effort to “apply” for and receive an absentee ballot. In many cases, this required a personal visit to the election authority to request the absentee-ballot application.

Today, those who run elections refer more accurately to the ballots with the term “VBMs,” or vote by mails. Today, and for many years, voters need only ask for a ballot sent in the mail to return by mail for no reason at all.

In fact, voters, such as myself and my Nebraska bride, requested the status of permanent vote-by-mail several years ago, so now the ballots just show up in the mailbox without action on our part. This used to require voting by mail in a certain number of elections, but now newly registered voters can request permanent vote-by-mail status from the get go.

Why so much more interest in voting by mail? I can only speak for myself. I contended with an erratic business travel schedule and/or a long commute that could easily interfere with voting on Election Day, so VBM makes perfect sense for me, and probably most other Californians.

Up until this year, the trend toward VBMs seemed to marginally benefit incumbents. Between 1998 and 2010, incumbents built a lead in the VBMs that the poll votes could not overcome, leading me several times to assert that the election stood long decided before actual election days in VBMs lying in the City Clerk’s Office.

But a funny thing happened to incumbent Mayor Laurie Ender on the way to April 10. When the City Clerk’s Office finished counting the VBMs on election night, the incumbent mayor possessed a slim 202-vote lead over challenger TimBen Boydston. When the city clerk toted up the VBMs dropped off at polling places on election day, this lead even narrowed to a mere 53 votes, with both Ender and Boydston virtually locked in a dead heat at about 21 percent of the votes cast on VBMs. This situation spelled the doom of Ender at that point.

Why? In recent elections, a trend emerged in which relative vote distribution changed drastically from the VBMs to the poll votes. While incumbents showed particular strength in the VBMs, some incumbents’ relative percentages fell drastically in the poll votes, with challengers gaining significantly.

In 2010, incumbent Frank Ferry held a nearly 800-vote lead over challenger David Gauny in the VBMs, which Gauny nearly overcame in the poll votes. In the 2012 election, this shifted even more dramatically in favor of Boydston, leading to Ender’s defeat.

Recall that in the VBMs, Ender and Boydston stood almost identical at 21 percent each. (Bob Kellar did, in fact, possess the more usual incumbent lead at 27 percent.)

In the poll votes on Election Day, Boydston harvested an incredible 28 percent, while Ender’s support collapsed to a mere 16 percent. (Kellar also increased his haul by moving from 27 percent to 30 percent.) Hence, one can trace the stunning victory of Boydston to unseat an incumbent for only the third time in city history to the results of the VBMs.

The shift in relative percentage constitutes a mathematically significant number that one cannot attribute to random events. Therefore, poll voters seemed much more committed to re-electing Kellar and unseating Ender in favor of the candidacy of Boydston, and indeed carried him to victory.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.


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