Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, March 13, 2006

"Losing the touch and feel of democracy"

Gordon Forgey wrote the following editorial in the March 9 edition of the Whitman County Gazette:
Tuesday is election day. The ballot will be dominated by financial levies. Requests for additional funds range from school districts to a countywide effort to raise the sales tax to benefit emergency services.

From a historical perspective, this will be the last Whitman County election that is predominantly decided at the polls. From now on, the bulk of county voters will be assigned a new status: that of vote-by-mail.

After this election, ballots will be mailed to the voter and then mailed back. Voters, instead of proudly sliding the finished ballot into a lock box, will simply stamp an envelope and hope that the ballot gets to where it is supposed to go.

Voting traditionally took some time and required for most a trip to the polling place. There was a tactile satisfaction of making the trip, handling the ballot and marking the votes, all which made democracy a physical experience.

That will be a thing of the past. The county, able to afford a number of amenities and even a new elevator supposedly for disabled voters going to the auditor’s office, cannot or will not afford new voting machines. Thus the countywide vote-by-mail mandate.

Also gone will the [sic] the stalwart precinct workers, those regulars who election after election greeted voters and for one tremendously long day, made sure that the elections were run properly and that votes were properly cast. They helped make democracy a community event.

The issues in this ballot are enough to generate interest and voter response. The fact that this is the last chance to vote at the polls in the county should generate some response as well.

Take the kids on Tuesday.

It will be their last chance to sense and feel the traditional nature to voting.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Forgey. Call me old fashioned, but I think voting should mean a little more than mailing in your water bill.

I don’t think, however, that the issue is the cost of new voting machines. I think the real problem is the cost vs. the return. Here in Pullman, 12 of 23 precincts are already vote-by-mail. Statewide, 70% of voters vote by mail. Voter turn out at polling places in off year, off-season elections can be extremely low. For example, in the September 2005 election, only two people cast their votes at the Presbyterian Church in Pullman. According to the Gazette, that election cost $54,000, $18,500 of which was billed to the city of Pullman.

Plus, there is the bandwagon factor. Since the legislature made it easier to for all-mail voting last year, jurisdictions all over the state have made the switch. Whitman was one of the only counties last November to still have polling places open. When voting by mail was approved here in December, only six other Washington counties had not done so yet.

In addition to that loss of a sense of civic involvement, I am also greatly concerned by the increased risk of election fraud.

For one thing, there is potential for ballots to be lost in the mail, thus disenfranchising that voter. A voter who recently moved can be mistakenly sent two ballots, a very real possibility in our college town. Others can cast ballots that were mailed to deceased voters. Instead of picture ID, now the only security will be comparing signatures on the mail-in ballot with the one on the voter registration form. This led to major problems in the disastrous 2004 gubernatorial election. Speaking of the 2004 election, misplaced mailed-in ballots were later found and allowed to be counted weeks after the results were certified.

Having been an election observer last November, I know firsthand how valuable the efforts of the poll workers can be in ensuring that a valid ballot is cast. At the Presbyterian Church, half of the 50 or so ballots cast were provisional. Many voters did not know where (or if) they were registered to vote or what ward they lived in. How are election workers (mostly volunteers) going to sort through thousands of ballots under a deadline and resolve these types of issues? Even King County, with a large and full-time elections staff, is not confident enough yet to completely switch to all-mail voting.

So yes, go vote tomorrow and mourn. The apathy of the electorate has finally won.


April E. Coggins said...

Voter apathy indeed. We were voters #4 and #5 at 2:00 p.m.

Nuge said...

I, too, will miss poll voting. A few thoughts.

I do not like the idea of inserting the U.S. Postal Service between me and a local proposition. I do not like the concept of my ballot passing through many hands, possibly several cities, mail trucks and sorters before the elections staff starts to pass it around. I do not like the fact that I would have to pay postage for all this to occur.

With that, I will probably vote provisional or drop my ballot off at a site. I have voted provisional several times for convenience and curiosity. By the way, the drop off box at the Whitman County Auditor's Office is sometimes unlocked as it sits on the counter top during elections. I have expressed this concern to the staff, but it considers the box to be under supervision.

On security, to my knowledge a picture ID hasn't been required at the polls. I always use my voter registration card. I am from the South, where voter ID is a hot issue, so I feel odd showing my driver license to anyone besides DOL or a police officer who has pulled me over for a driving offense. For all other purposes, I use a passport.

The new statewide voter database, although it has real shortcomings, should help reduce duplicate ballots when people move. I've seen it in action, and it does an imperfect, but decent job of flagging duplicates. How they are corrected is another matter.

Anyway, thanks for reading the Gazette. It's pretty good paper, I think.