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County to consider vote-by-mail system

By Brittany Greenfield   The Western Front Online

January 11, 2005

Taxpayers will save money and elections will be more accurate if Whatcom County switches to a vote-by-mail system, county auditor Shirley Forslof said at a Bellingham community forum Saturday.

The forum was sponsored by the county Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties and six local organizations such as Whatcom Fair Voting. The forum allowed community members to learn about the proposal Forslof will introduce at the Whatcom County Council meeting Tuesday.

The proposed changes would limit the size of voting precincts in the county to fewer than 200 voters each. Forslof said this would allow her, as county auditor, to designate all precincts as vote-by-mail.

Forslof said Whatcom County will phase out the punch-card system by 2006 as required by the Help America Vote Act. This act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002, established a program that provides funds to states for replacing the punch-card voting system. Forslof said the county has the option of replacing them with either a full vote-by-mail system or a combination of absentee ballots and touch-screen polls.

Citing that 73 percent of Whatcom County voters used absentee ballots in the November general election, Forslof said voters already have shown they favor mail-in ballots.

Forslof said the convenience of at-home voting also would increase voter participation and allow voters to study the candidates and issues, as well as educate future voters by encouraging family involvement.

"It's a change in custom," she said. "Instead of voting at the polls, you vote around the dinner table."

Forslof said that with the new system, all voters would use optical-scan, mail-in ballots that are similar to absentee ballots but with fill-in bubbles rather than punch-out chads. The only polling places, Forslof said, would be those the 2002 act requires for voters with disabilities who are unable to use a mail-in ballot.

Forslof said implementing the vote-by-mail system would cost Whatcom County taxpayers an estimated $1.6 million less than keeping the polls open. The county would save money on things such as poll workers'' salaries and rent of the poll locations, as well as the cost of replacing punch-card machines with the touch-screen equipment the act requires.

Forslof said these savings would significantly outweigh the printing and postage costs of the additional mail-in ballots.

At the forum, Zach Frazier, a Western junior and political science major with experience in debate, presented reasons why he opposes the new system. He said he values the tradition and the community contact that voting at the polls represents. As a student, Frazier said he always has had to vote by absentee ballot but wants to vote at the polls in the future.

"I would like at least the option," he said.

Larry Williams, 62, a Bellingham voter who attended the forum, said he was concerned that the vote-by-mail system would isolate voters.

"We're losing contact of each other," Williams said. "It's our society, not the technocrats' society."

County Councilman Seth Fleetwood said he always has voted at the polls.

"I feel a certain nostalgia for keeping it a certain way," he said.

But although Fleetwood said he was trying to remain open-minded about the proposal, he said he was leaning toward supporting it because of the vote-by-mail system's reliability and potential for attracting more voters.

Forslof said another advantage of the vote-by-mail system would be more secure voting. Mail-in ballots would create an auditable paper trail, require signature verification and give election officials more control because all ballots would be handled the same.

Forslof will present the proposal at the Whatcom County Council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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