Updated: Vote-by-Mail Increases Costs for Rockville Election

Updated: Vote-by-Mail Increases Costs for Rockville Election

City officials, candidates say greater voter turnout would justify price

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This story was updated on Wednesday at 11:05 a.m. to include new election cost estimates provided by the Rockville city clerk.

Rockville’s first vote-by-mail election will be significantly more expensive than previous races.

But city officials and candidates say the cost will be worth it if the system increases voter participation, which they hope as they pioneer the system in Maryland.

“We’re doing everything we can to make history here,” City Clerk Sara Taylor-Ferrell said. “It’s secure. It’s convenient. And I think voters prefer it because it makes it possible to cast a ballot from the comfort of their own home.”

The Clerk’s Office requested $355,650 for the 2019 election, an increase of roughly $300,000 over the previous three, which cost between $40,000 and $60,000, she said. For the first time, the cost includes outreach and communication efforts by the city, which is trying to inform roughly 28,000 households of the change to the system.

Farrell initially gave an estimate of $269,850 for the entire election, but called Wednesday to clarify that the original figure only included her request for fiscal year 2019. The total of $355,650 reflects the full cost of the election over two fiscal years.

Most of the new expenses are associated with voter outreach and distributing election materials by mail, including a ballot packet with instructions and prepaid return ballot envelope, Taylor-Ferrell added.

The city paid approximately $86,000 to send those materials to more than 43,000 registered voters, along with four mailers informing residents of the new system and the available options for voting.

Rockville’s election is scheduled for Nov. 5, but the deadline to register for mail-in ballots was Sept. 20. Residents can still register at Rockville City Hall on Election Day to vote in person.

All ballots are due by Nov. 5. Residents can mail or drop their ballots off at City Hall, or cast them in person on Election Day.

Candidates Virginia Onley and Bridget Donnell Newton, the incumbent, are competing in the mayoral race. Thirteen candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for four available City Council seats.

Onley is aligned with four council candidates as “Team Rockville,” a slate that shares a common vision of protecting diversity in the city and saving Town Center. The coalition includes council candidates Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, James Hedrick, David Myles and incumbent Mark Pierzchala.

Donnell Newton is also running with four council candidates as part of “Rockville Forward,” an opposing group committed to elevating new candidates. The slate includes incumbent Beryl Feinberg along with new candidates Monique Ashton, Kuan Lee and Suzan Pitman.

At the city’s first candidate forum in September, the majority of contenders said they supported the vote-by-mail system to increase voter participation. Many, including Ashton, a first-time candidate, said they would like to solicit voter feedback and launch a study period to assess the effectiveness of mail-in ballots.

Data on voter turnout after mail-in elections are mixed.

In Oregon, the first state to launch an entirely vote-by-mail system, studies suggested that participation jumped by 10 percentage points in the first year. Researchers have been unable to reproduce those results and suggested that the increase stemmed from a “novelty effect” that only recurred during special elections.

In Washington state, where the system was implemented in 2011, studies found that vote-by-mail elections increased overall participation by around 3 percentage points in presidential and midterm elections. Colorado also uses an entirely vote-by-mail system, while California allows voters to request mail-in ballots.

Other research has shown that when vote-by-mail is the only option for voters, participation decreases, though pre-election reminders can reverse some of those losses.

While Rockville plans to study the effectiveness of mail-in ballots after the November election, the city is also modeling the system for the rest of Maryland. Taylor-Ferrell said several state officials have asked to shadow her office on Election Day.

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