California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and a host of union officials are savaging the Republican-controlled Orange County Board of Supervisors for its recent rejection of a plan to replace the current voting system with a vote-by-mail alternative. They accuse the board of partisanship, but they are the ones playing power politics.

Padilla, a Democrat, said the county’s decision “was driven less by the interests of the people of Orange County and more by political considerations.” The head of the Orange County Employees Association, in a Register column, accused the board of trying to “suppress our voices.” Joe Kerr, the former president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, praised Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley for backing the new voting system, and concluded that the rejection of Kelley’s recommendations “was a gut punch to everyone who cares about our democracy.”

I care about our democracy, but am pleased with the board’s decision.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Voter’s Choice Act, which allows California counties to opt in to a system that replaces traditional polling stations with a mail-oriented system. Every registered voter would automatically receive a ballot. They can mail the ballot. They — or someone acting on their behalf — can also drop off the ballot at a vote center. Under the new law, citizens would be allowed to register on Election Day.

“It’s an invitation to fraud,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which opposed the Choice Act. As he explains it, the new system makes it easy for activists to get a list of the names of voters, gather up the ballots and deliver them to the voter centers. What’s to stop some big burly guys showing up and watching over how the people on the list vote?

Supporters of vote-by-mail pitch it as a way to increase voting turnout. How many times have we heard that canard? The top-two primary system, which pits the top two vote-getters against each other in the general election regardless of their parties, was supposed to increase turnout. So were any number of electoral reforms. And yet California’s voter participation rates remain low. As one party dominates everything, there are fewer competitive seats and fewer philosophical choices, so there’s less reason to get out and vote.

The new goal from election reformers is to register voting-age people automatically, and even to reduce the age of voting. I usually vote, but I’m not the biggest fan of the process. My old Register colleague, the late, great Alan Bock, used to argue good naturedly that voting only encouraged “them.” Falling turnout drives the political establishment nuts because it erodes its legitimacy. Hence the efforts to prop up those turnout numbers.

But even those who champion voting as the ultimate expression of civic virtue should wonder about the value of increasing the number of uninformed voters. If people aren’t willing to go to the slight trouble of registering, reading up on the issues and showing up at a precinct, or requesting and sending an absentee ballot in the mail, then how does that further a vibrant democracy?

What about Kelley, who is a well-respected registrar? I don’t doubt his good intentions or the projections that the new system will save county taxpayers $10 million to $20 million, because it would replace 1,000 precinct stations with 150 of these new vote centers. But registrars have an obvious interest in making the system easier to administer.

I find it ironic that union and Democratic officials, who are eager to spend billions of dollars on myriad new programs and public-employee benefits, suddenly are concerned about saving the hard-pressed taxpayer a few shekels. Administering elections seems like one of the few legitimate ways that government spends money.

The board of supervisors didn’t debate the issue before the vote, but Supervisor Todd Spitzer expressed concerns about voter fraud. I know it’s fashionable to depict concerns about fraud as the equivalent of voter suppression. But there are plenty of allegations of voter fraud in recent and past elections in many locales.

I don’t care about the “communal act” of voting at Election Day precincts. People are naturally shifting more to an absentee model on their own. I do find automatically sending out ballots more problematic than absentee ballots alone, because of the generally poor state of government mailing lists. But we should all care about the costs to candidates of running an election. Instead of focusing on the last few days before a vote, when voters are paying attention, vote by mail further expands the voting period and forces candidates to run long and sustained election efforts. That benefits well-heeled interest groups and the party in power. Perhaps that — rather than a flag-waving love of democracy — is a better explanation of why some groups are so intent on convincing the board of supervisors to participate in this program.

Image by Kobzev Dmitry

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