Vote-by-mail gains steam




A switch to a statewide vote-by-mail system in Washington is gaining support in at least one chamber of the Legislature.

The drama playing out over King County's tabulation of votes in the still-contested governor's race is feeding interest in making election- system changes on both sides of the political aisle.
A move to vote-by-mail is seen as one simple way to bring uniformity in voting statewide, Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger said Tuesday in testimony before a House committee, where no one spoke against the idea of vote-by-mail balloting.

Elections experts from Oregon also testified Tuesday on how well that state's all-mail system has worked the past six years.

It has reduced costs, eliminated problems with provisional ballots and increased turnout, according to Union County Clerk Nellie Bogue-Hibbert and Multnomah County Elections Director John Kauffman.

"I think we are definitely moving toward an all vote-by-mail system," Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said after overseeing the hearing in the House State Government Operations and Accountability Committee.

"With a lot of the problems we had in the last election, a lot of people feel we will take care of them by going to an all vote-by-mail system," Haigh said. "Everyone I run into seems to be saying, 'Go with vote-by-mail.' ... I think it's a much more deliberative process. I know I do a better job of voting" with an absentee ballot.

Senate prospects

The statewide all-mail proposal faces a steeper climb in the Senate, where Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, heads a committee that has approved nearly a dozen bills dealing with changing the election. An approach that leaves voting by mail up to the counties is the only option that has a chance of passing, Kastama said Tuesday.

Even so, Haigh said, she hopes to bring the statewide mail-vote proposal, embodied in House Bill 1990, for a committee vote by March 2, which is next week's deadline for passing nonfinancial bills out of legislative committees en route to the House and Senate floors. The bill would require all-mail voting by 2008.

Haigh also plans to have a vote on a competing measure, House Bill 1754, which would let counties move more easily to an all-mail voting system. Her home turf, Mason County, is in the process of doing just that after voters there approved the concept in a nonbinding referendum in November. But the method is cumbersome under existing laws.

Support for vote-by-mail is growing throughout the House, said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who sponsored both of the bills. But one legislator, Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah, questioned what financial hit might be dealt to Yakima County and other agencies that have purchased touch-screen voting machines.

A handful of counties statewide have gone to vote-by-mail, according to Secretary of State Sam Reed, who testified Tuesday in favor of the county-only mail-vote option. Vote-by-mail boosts voter participation, lowers costs, creates a standardized voting system, and contributes to a better-informed electorate that can take the time to go over issues, Reed said.

Reed has said he doesn't want to impose a statewide mail-vote system, wanting to respect the wishes of many voters who still like to visit the polls. He did not testify directly on the statewide proposal.

Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman has not taken a firm position either way on a total vote-by-mail approach, aides said. However, Wyman has recognized that many local voters still like to go to the polls, although roughly two-thirds of voters statewide and locally vote by absentee ballot.

Terwilliger, the Snohomish County elections official, said a switch to statewide vote-by-mail would save his county from expensive upgrades of touch-screen machines to ensure they have a paper audit trail, and that also would simplify everything related to the elections process.

Snohomish County has 1,000 of the machines, and costs of $500 per machine would bring the tab to $500,000 to install the paper-trail feature.

Everett activist Harry Abbott testified there are six reasons vote-by-mail is a better way to go: a possible 15 percent higher voter turnout, lower taxpayer costs, convenience for voters, easier work for elections officials, better accuracy in counts and less elections fraud.

"I think the evidence is in," Abbott told the House committee, suggesting that vote-by-mail is well-tested after its six-year run in Oregon. "Their elections are smooth, efficient and secure."

Bogue-Hibbert, the county clerk in Oregon, said vote-by-mail -- in combination with that state's electronic voter registration base -- has cut down on double- registrations of voters and made it easier to register people close to election dates.



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