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California voters returning ballots in big numbers, election officials say

By Jim Miller Tribune News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Eddie Tong of Sacramento carried his pink vote-by-mail ballot into the county elections office Friday, intent on making sure his preference in the country’s bruising presidential race showed up in next month’s tally.

Tong’s ballot will join several hundred thousand mail ballots already cast, as election officials around the state say mail ballot returns are running higher than usual for a presidential election. Explanations include the overall increase in the number of Californians receiving mail ballots and interest in the high-octane presidential contest. They also cite some voters’ fatigue with the race’s relentlessly negative tone and suspect some just want to be done with it.

“For months it’s been all arguments. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tong, 64, a supporter of Democrat Hillary Clinton. “It’s special this year, with these two candidates.”

The contest between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump seems to be driving much of Los Angeles County’s early vote-by-mail returns, said Dean Logan, the county’s registrar-recorder/county clerk and the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. The 17 statewide ballot measures or the low-key contest to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer don’t appear to be drawing many early voters.

“There’s absolutely a sense that the vote-by-mail (return) is increasing in the state,” said Logan, whose office had received 185,000 mail ballots through Thursday. “I think there’s this eagerness where people are eager to receive their ballot and cast their vote.”

Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin said she’s heard different explanations about why people are casting mail ballots when they do. Her office had received about 5,000 ballots back as of Thursday.

“I’ve got some people saying they want to be done” with the election, while others seem to be in no hurry, she said, whether it’s to study up on the statewide propositions or to wait for any late issues in some local races on the ballot.

The rate of mail ballot returns traditionally increases as Election Day approaches. Four days before the November 2012 election, for example, Sacramento County received more than 4,000 vote-by-mail ballots, more than twice as many as it took in two weeks before the election.

Nationwide, about 4.3 million people have already voted, according to the United States Election Project. The return rate roughly matches or slightly exceeds that of 2012, said Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who publishes the site.

“The volumes are very comparable (to 2012),” MacDonald said. “They are up in some places, down in others.”

Yet it’s also difficult to make straight comparisons with past elections. Florida and Colorado have made it easier to vote by mail since 2012, for example. And in California, the number of permanent vote-by-mail voters has increased by 1.5 million since 2012. Their share of the electorate has grown from 44 percent to 53 percent.

The makeup of permanent mail voters also has shifted significantly. Compared to the same point before the November 2012 election, Latino, younger and no-party-preference voters are returning vote-by-mail ballots at a higher rate, said Paul Mitchell, Political Data Inc.’s vice president.

Yet he said it’s too soon to know whether the overall election turnout will be unusually large.

Political parties and campaigns are closely tracking the returns. As of Thursday, 50 percent of the returned ballots statewide came from registered Democrats, several points higher than their share of the electorate. Republican ballots represented 29 percent of the total, equal to the GOP’s share of the electorate, according to Political Data Inc.

People voting this far ahead of the election likely are among the most engaged in the political process notwithstanding the ugliness of the presidential race, said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis.

“It’s a sign of enthusiasm, but it doesn’t mean that they’re happy,” she said. “I think there are a lot of upset voters who are going to vote.”

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