[Image via sfchronicle]

This month, California’s San Mateo County conducted an all-mail election – and the results are raising questions about whether the county’s “experiment” is an indication of California’s future. The San Jose Mercury News has more:

San Mateo County’s recent mail election did more than boost voter participation in a sleepy off-year cycle, a preliminary analysis shows. It yielded dramatic spikes in turnout among young people and minorities.

The eye-popping numbers from the county’s experiment, the first of its kind in an urban county in California, are sure to bolster a movement to expand mail elections throughout the state, following the lead of Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Turnout was up 16 percent over the last comparable election in 2013, and the voting rate among Asians increased by more than 30 percent in six cities …

“It worked better than I could possibly have hoped for,” said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who passed legislation enrolling the county in a pilot program to study mail elections. “I think we are setting a standard that the state can follow.”

Readers familiar with Colorado’s “ballot delivery” model will see the inspiration for San Mateo’s operation:

For the Nov. 3 election, a mix of local initiatives and city council and school board races, San Mateo County mailed ballots to all 357,191 of its registered voters, who then had several options. They could mail the document back to the county, turn it in before or during the election at a drop-off kiosk, or vote in person at a centralized voting center. They could also cast early ballots in person at one of two locations.

Early indications suggest that turnout was higher than similar elections in recent years:

Turnout was 29.5 percent, up 4.1 percentage points from the last consolidated local election in 2013. And while the county has yet to release a demographic breakdown of participation, Sacramento-based elections guru Paul Mitchell crunched the numbers last week and came up with some startling results.

Turnout among voters ages 18 to 24 increased in all eight cities that had competitive council races, up 79 percent in San Mateo, for instance, and more than 160 percent in Brisbane. The results were similar for Asian and Latino voters….

Mitchell also found the increase in turnout appeared to be higher among those who are not already registered as permanent mail voters.

While the results are generating some excitement, San Mateo did have one relatively unique factor in its favor which could explain at least some of the jump in participation:

One factor that may have boosted turnout, especially among younger people, is that the county prepaid the postage on the ballot envelopes. Election agencies in Colorado, Oregon and Washington do not pay for voters to return their ballots. And it’s unclear whether legislators in California would be willing to buck that trend.

The County is part of a statewide pilot, and there is some hope that continued success will spark statewide adoption:

The mail election pilot program began in rural Yolo County and runs for two more years. San Mateo County aims to hold the November 2017 election by mail as well as an undetermined special election. Monterey and Sacramento counties will also take part in the program under legislation that passed this fall.

There is already a bill circulating in the state Capitol, sponsored by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, that would implement statewide mail elections in the Colorado mold as early as 2018.

Mullin said he isn’t sure if there’s enough support in Sacramento to pass such a bill in 2016. He will spend the next couple years drumming up support among his colleagues before possibly floating his own legislation.

“No massive change like this happens quickly or easily,” said Mullin. Still, he said, “This really is the wave of the future.”

The key going forward will be to determine if San Mateo’s recent strong turnout numbers can be replicated there and in other counties – and if cost (including postage) and other factors also support wider adoption. If they do, you can bet that momentum for ballot delivery in California will begin to gather steam.

Stay tuned.