Come Tuesday, I’ll take part in one of my favorite civic rituals.

Before heading to work, I’ll stop in the lunch room at Helen Lehman Elementary School in west Santa Rosa to cast my ballot.

One of my neighbors works at the poll. We’ll chat while she looks up my name and hands me the log book to sign.

My son usually tags along and wears the little “I voted” sticker for the rest of the day. He turns 9 on Tuesday ” half way to earning his own stickers.

By the time he can vote, however, a trip to the poll may no longer be an option. Any sticker may come in the mail, with his ballot.

Or he may be logging into to a Web site and printing the sticker himself.

We used to call them absentee ballots but they’ve become such a staple, especially in Sonoma County, that election officials now refer to them as vote-by-mail ballots.

Between a growing number of mail-only precincts and requests for the ballots once known as absentees, ballots have been sent to 62 percent of Sonoma County’s 235,00 registered voters.

I’ll save you the math ” that’s 146,000 ballots.

As of Wednesday, just 43,000 had been returned, which probably is a function of the ballot: no statewide offices, no wedge-issue initiatives. A presidential primary? We voted in February. Remember, we were going to have a greater impact on the nominations, but that’s a topic for another day.

Election officials say mail balloting has increased voter turnout, and there is evidence to back them up. Sonoma County consistently has among the highest turnouts in the state, routinely topping 70 percent for general elections and approaching 90 percent of registered voters in November 2004.

County Clerk Janice Atkinson projects a 53 percent turnout. Statewide, many expect that fewer than a third of registered voters will cast ballots in Tuesday’s election.

In my collection of campaign memorabilia, there are some grocery bags from a libertarian-owned convenience store chain that say, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” But there is real value in a big turnout.

It makes a statement about government by the people ”