Elections may go postal
By JAMES GELUSO and BEVERLY CRICHFIELD Skagit Valley Herald 09 February 2005
Skagit County voters could go to the polls for the last time this November.
Seeking to avoid buying costly electronic voting machines, Skagit County Auditor Norma Brummett asked the county commissioners Tuesday to allow the county to convert to vote-by-mail status.
Federal law will require an electronic voting machine at every poll site beginning in 2006. But with 46 poll sites, and the machines costing around $5,000 each, Brummett said she would rather shut down the poll sites and require everyone to mail in their ballots.
The idea seemed to go over well with the county commissioners, but many voters remain unconvinced.
For Judy Howe, placing her ballot in a locked box at her local polling place is a ritual she doesn't want to see change.
"Going to the polls is a special event," Howe said Tuesday outside the Mount Vernon Post Office. "I like the fact that you can go there and have the opportunity to see everyone voting and visit with them."
Howe, of Conway, has been a poll worker in Skagit County for the past three years. She said she's used to the hubbub at the polls and seeing democracy at work.
"I think voting by mail is OK, but it should not be the only method," Howe said.
Other voters said they wouldn't mind the proposed change.
"I like the time you have to sit down and look through the (voter's) information and talk about it before you vote," said Carol Watilo, who lives just outside of Mount Vernon. Watilo routinely votes by absentee ballot.
Elections Supervisor Erika Kubischta said more voters are moving to mail ballots anyway. Already, about 66 percent of county voters receive their ballots by mail, either because they have requested permanent absentee status or because they live in a small precinct that has been designated vote-by-mail.
The federal election law passed in the wake of the 2000 presidential election requires the county to upgrade its election systems, from voting machines to tabulators.
The county still needs to buy two new tabulation machines, because the current machines will no longer be certified next year.
But Kubischta said the question is whether the county spends money on two voting systems ? one for absentee voters and one for poll voters ? or just one.
Deputy Auditor David Cunningham estimated a total cost of $350,000 to $550,000 to comply with federal election requirements next year if the county goes to all vote-by-mail.
If the county also buys about 60 electronic voting machines ? one for each poll site plus several backups ? that would add at least $300,000 to the tab, Brummett said.
But many in the public are skeptical about the machines, fearing they could be tampered with, Brummett said. Adding a voter-verifiable paper ballot to help alleviate those concerns would add about $1,000 to the cost of each machine, she said.
Getting rid of the poll sites also would eliminate the cost of renting the space and hiring poll workers for each election. That comes to about $35,000 for every countywide election, Cunningham said.
Brummett said she had considered consolidating the county's poll sites into about 10 locations, but found there aren't enough buildings around the county large enough to hold all the tables, booths and people in a consolidated poll site.
The commissioners didn't take any action or set any hearings Tuesday, but they appeared to favor the move, especially considering the estimated savings from not buying electronic voting machines.
Commissioner Don Munks said that while many older people enjoy the social experience of going to the polls, younger people prefer to just get the ballot and send it back.
But Brummett said many older people prefer absentee ballots, especially "snowbirds," older people who spend their winters in warmer states.
Even if the county goes to all vote-by-mail elections, the county would still have about 10 -off locations around the county, Brummett said. And the county would have one electronic voting machine available for each election at the county administration building in Mount Vernon.
The Republican and Democratic parties are sharply divided about vote-by-mail.
Chris Vance, state GOP party chairman, said the state party is opposed to all-mail elections.
"We're concerned that all this vote-by-mail stuff is exacerbating the fraud, with dead people voting and felons voting," Vance said. "It's much harder to check these things when people are voting by mail."
Mark Hulst, who recently stepped down as Skagit County GOP chairman, agreed. Not only are the absentee ballots more difficult to verify, Hulst said the vote-by-mail process also gets in the way of campaigning.
Much of the money for advertising and campaign information comes in at the end of the campaigns, Hulst said. Voting by mail means the party can't get campaign information out to voters before they have mailed in their ballots.
"It would really change the dynamics of elections at this point in time," Hulst said.
Local Democrats say they favor vote-by-mail. They say they're worried that the newly required electronic voting machines won't be as accurate as the traditional paper ballots.
Congress has mandated that all counties must provide electronic voting at the polls by 2006.
But the current electronic voting machines don't provide voters with assurance that what they entered in to the machine was accurate, Democrats say.
Vote-by-mail also would increase voter participation, said Gail Nicolls, chair of the Skagit County Democratic Central Committee.