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County conducts historic test of 'all-mail' voting system

All registered voters in the county will get a ballot. But will it increase turnout?

This year's elections in San Mateo County will not only determine the composition of governing boards and whether ballot measures pass. It will also be the testing ground for running an "all-mail" election.

As part of a pilot program to boost voter participation and decrease costs, each of the more than 340,000 registered voters in San Mateo County will receive a ballot in their mail this year, complete with pre-paid postage.

From now until Election Day (Nov. 3), voters have three options to cast their vote.

First, and perhaps most simply, they can place their ballots in the mail.

Second, voters can turn in their ballots in person at one of 20 city hall locations throughout the county during regular business hours up until 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Check your voter information pamphlet for the nearest dropoff location.

Third, voters can cast their votes via electronic voting machine or paper ballot from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at two voting centers: 40 Tower Road in San Mateo; and 555 County Center, 1st Floor, in Redwood City.

The latter two options come with the bonus of an "I voted" sticker.

Voters who do not receive their ballots by Oct. 17 should contact the county elections office by phone at (650) 312-5222 or email at registrar@smcare.org. Oct. 19 is the final deadline to register to vote.

Election Day

On Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 3), voters have the option to go to one of 32 universal polling places in the county that will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

At any of these polling places, any San Mateo County registered voter can vote in person, request a replacement ballot, or drop off his or her mail-in ballot. For example, someone who lives in Woodside can go to a polling place in Menlo Park and vote in the Woodside elections.

Go to tinyurl.com/ballot113 to see a list of the polling place locations.

Mailed ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3.

Pilot program

San Mateo County and Yolo County are the only counties in California authorized by state law to participate in this pilot program. The state Legislature's intention is to test this election method to see if it should be adopted statewide.

The counties were selected to test the method in different areas: Yolo County is larger and less populous that the more urban San Mateo County.

San Mateo County plans to conduct three all-mail elections between now and 2018. However, this method will be used only in local and county-wide contests, not for state or federal elections.

For many in San Mateo County, using a mail-in ballot will not be new. In the November 2014 general election, 67 percent of the county's voters used mail-in ballots.

The election method San Mateo County is testing follows Colorado's "hybrid model" in which all registered voters receive mail-in ballots but can opt to vote in person on Election Day. Oregon and Washington operate all-mail elections exclusively.

Mark Church, San Mateo County's chief elections officer, said voter turnout may increase by about 10 percent as the result of this election method.

In addition, he said, an all-mail voting system could nearly halve the costs of elections. San Mateo County's past elections have relied on training 1,700 poll workers to operate 1,300 voting machines at 209 polling places. In this election, the county will have four to five poll workers at each of only 32 universal polling places on Election Day.

In local elections, where voters tend to turn out in relatively slim numbers, making voting as easy as possible is important, said David Pine, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

Elections for local leaders and measures have a "great bearing on people's quality of life," he said. "A democracy without robust voting is not a democracy that we want."

Voter registration

A new state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 10 will automatically register to vote every eligible California citizen who goes to a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get or renew a driver's license. The law, which will go into effect Jan. 1, would allow the person to opt of registering to vote.

You can still vote in person

Although it's being called an all-mail election, you can still vote at a polling place. Thirty-two universal polling places will be open from 7 a.m. on Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 3). At any of these polling places, any San Mateo County registered voter can vote in person, request a replacement ballot, or drop off his or her mail-in ballot. Here are the four universal polling places in Almanac towns:

● Atherton: Menlo College, Fireside Room, Student Union Building, 1000 El Camino Real.

● Menlo Park: Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, Juniper Room, 700 Alma St.

● Portola Valley: Historic School House, Town Chambers, 765 Portola Road, Portola Valley.

● Woodside: Town of Woodside Independence Hall, 2955 Woodside Road.

SmartVoter.org provides information from the League of Women Voters about local election contests.

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