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Mail-In Ballots Are Convenient, But Also Present Challenges

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Workers at the San Francisco Department of Elections sort stacks of vote-by-mail ballots by precinct. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The first wave of mail-in ballots for California’s June primary is going out now to military and overseas voters. Ballots for most vote-by-mail voters will go out in May.

Voting by mail is becoming an increasingly popular choice. In California’s 2014 general election, more than 60 percent of votes cast came via mail-in ballots, an all-time high. The method has become so popular that a bill pending in the state Legislature would let counties conduct all-mail ballot elections.

But Kim Nalder, with the Project for an Informed Electorate, says there are some shortcomings voters should be aware of. For instance, she says research shows mail-in ballots have higher error rates.

“But that’s mostly because many of the in-person systems allow the voters to essentially check," she says. "So if you voted too many times in the same race, then it’ll kick it out and you’ll have a chance to redo it. If you do it at home, obviously, there’s no check until it’s too late.”

And in a rapidly changing political landscape, Nalder says there’s a chance things could change between when a vote is cast and the actual election.

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“So, if a candidate drops out, perhaps, you’ve already voted for that person and it’s too late to redo that," she says. "Or if some scandal erupts at the last minute or  something happens, you learn new information that might have changed your mind on an initiative, it’s too late once you’ve mailed it in.”

But mail-in ballots do have one big advantage -- they make it more convenient to cast a ballot. And Nalder says it’s a good thing any time a barrier to voting is removed.

Another plus: You have some leeway when sending in your vote. Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and arrive at your county elections office within three days of the election.

A lot of new voters are expected to cast ballots in this year's primary.  Secretary of State Alex Padilla says more than 600,000 people have registered to vote or updated their registration through his office’s website since the beginning of the year.

“I have no doubt that our voting systems can handle it, but it is something we want to make sure that we are prepared for," he says. "So I have requested additional resources from the governor and the Legislature.”

Padilla has requested $32 million from the governor and Legislature to help his office and county election offices prepare for what he's calling a surge of voters. That is in addition to the $450 million Padilla would like to have to replace aging voting equipment in the state.

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