Election Day may be just hours away, but more than 800,000 Bay Area voters won't be showing up at the polls Tuesday: They have already voted, as Californians in record numbers are trading the ballot box for the mailbox.
It's as if the entire city of San Francisco held the election early.
Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, and in this presidential election year, they may still be mobbed -- especially considering California now has a record 18.2 million registered voters, up by more than 940,000 from this time four years ago.
Yet more and more voters like Helen Hutchison aren't taking chances: The Oakland woman will be working at the polls Tuesday but chose to mail in her ballot Oct. 20.
"I much prefer to make my decisions on longer-term information rather than last-minute smears," she said.
About half of California's voters are expected to vote by mail this year, an 8 percent jump from the 2008 presidential election. Alas, for election officials, that does nothing to speed up the vote count if procrastinators hang on to their ballots until Election Day.
And that's just what voters tend to do more frequently in presidential election years, perhaps so -- unlike Hutchison -- they don't regret voting before a late October surprise.
Janet Stromberg, a registered Democrat from Berkeley, hadn't sent in her mail-in ballot as of Friday.
"I'd say half the time I end up dropping it off by hand,"
Those last-minute mail-in ballots, however, must undergo an extra layer of verification and won't even be counted in many counties until long after Tuesday.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen said a county elections official must match the signature on each mail-in ballot's envelope with the signature on the voter's registration card. With a last-minute avalanche of mail-in ballots, counties often need most or all of the 31 days that state law allows to complete their count and certify final results to the state.
In 2008, more than 3 million ballots -- about one-fourth cast -- didn't get counted until after Election Day.
That won't be the case for hundreds of thousands of Bay Area voters, who had turned in their ballots by last week:
California's voter-registration this year was fueled in part by a new system allowing online registration. The deadline to register was Oct. 22.
A new law will let Californians register right up to and including Election Day, but that won't take effect until the secretary of state certifies VoteCal, the new statewide voter database, probably in 2015.
Still, Bowen noted that this September and October saw less of a voter-registration boom than the same months in the last presidential election year.
"Registering to vote is easier now than it was four years ago, yet fewer people actually registered in this final 45-day window than did in 2008," she said. "This makes it clear that it's not just a question of making voter registration easier. It's really about what inspires people to care about their democracy and be part of the decision-making process."
To report election fraud, call the California Secretary of State Office's voter hotline: 800-345-8683