Economies of Small-Scale: Vote-by-Mail and High Turnout in Alpine County, CA


[Image courtesy of Flickr user courthouselover]

Today’s Los Angeles Times has a great story about elections in the smallest county in the nation’s biggest state; Alpine County, home to mountain views and one of the state’s highest turnout rates:

Nearly everyone in this community along the crest of the Sierra Nevada — carved through graceful, tall pine groves and mountain peaks, halfway between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite — makes their mark on election day. On June 3, in one of the least compelling gubernatorial primary elections in memory, nearly 70% of voters cast ballots, the largest turnout per capita in the state.

Based on the article, it would appear that several factors are at play. First, there is a high degree of civic involvement that comes in part from living in what amounts to a small (if far-flung) town:

[I]n Alpine County there is a sense of Americana during election season, even if voters don’t meet at the polls. Businesses hold informal meet-and-greets with candidates at the local ski resorts, and the county clerk traditionally hosts formal voter forums.

“We usually do coffee and cookies afterward,” said county Clerk Barbara Howard.

And several voters interviewed here say there is a particular resolve to weigh in on politics in this remote region, where many residents get their news from Nevada television stations.

“I know virtually everyone who is running, on both sides,” said contractor Nick Hartzell, 60. “It’s mostly personal. I think a number of them spoke to me personally … they’ll knock on doors. And unfortunately we have a lot of signs. I end up voting against the guy with the most signs.”

The high rate of participation also seems to stem from the county’s all vote-by-mail elections as both convenient and necessary for the inevitable times when it is difficult to get to the polls:

In Alpine County — the least populous of the state’s 58 counties and fondly referred to as the California Alps — all residents vote by mail, one of only two counties to do so in the state. Alpine instituted all-mail balloting in 1989 because of its tiny yet sprawling population — fewer than 1,200 residents spread across 743 square miles — and because voters were often stymied going to the polls in November by deep drifts of snow …

[Political Data’s Paul] Mitchell said the high participation rates here are attributable to the comprehensive vote-by-mail system — every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail, not just those who request them — as well as demographics such as ethnicity, home ownership and age that tend to correlate with higher rates of electoral participation.

These two factors merge to create a strong urge to participate – almost a fear of missing out – among residents, including newcomers to the area:

Aileen Bornstein, 54, said she never felt as great an urge to vote when she lived in the Bay Area. But on June 3, when she realized that she had failed to turn in her ballot, she raced to the county depository before the polls closed.

“I feel a sense of responsibility, I feel it would be missed if I didn’t, where maybe in a larger area you feel like you get lost in the shuffle,” Bornstein said at Stonefly, the pizza restaurant she owns here.

One more thing that isn’t covered in the article – but I think is important – is the ability of a tiny county like Alpine to focus attention and limited resources on a small number of ballots. I don’t know if Alpine has had difficulty with late-arriving ballots like the ones dismaying election officials in Sacramento and Santa Cruz, but I suspect it hasn’t; I’m guessing that the postal worker(s?) responsible for those ballots is well-known to most of the County’s voters and wouldn’t want to hear about delivery problems from neighbors. Moreover, it’s worth noting that vote-by-mail, which has been criticized for weakening the communal aspect of voting, seems to work in this small, close-knit community.

This small-scale approach – which allows election officials and voters to give the election process a high (relative) degree of attention – can’t realistically be duplicated in larger jurisdictions like Los Angeles, where precincts can have more voters than in all of Alpine. But just as election officials in many jurisdictions look to maximize efficiency – and often envy the economies of scale afforded to larger jurisdictions like Los Angeles – there is a lot to learn from the economies of small scale present in tiny jurisdictions like Alpine.

Thanks to the Times for this profile; if nothing else, I just put a visit to the Alpine County elections office on my personal election geek bucket list 🙂

13 Comments on "Economies of Small-Scale: Vote-by-Mail and High Turnout in Alpine County, CA"

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