The 77-year-old woman’s voice cracked when she talked about working Election Day.
The Elk resident considers her nearly 50 years of work at voting precincts her duty as an American.
“I think it’s important to be involved in government as much as you can,” Verna Steele said. “Working at the polls is one thing I can do. There are a lot of things I can’t do.”
Tuesday’s vote on an advisory measure to eliminate poll voting in Spokane County and instead cast ballots by mail could render Steele’s role obsolete.
Steele – not surprisingly – believes the system should remain as it is, and worries that the future of an American tradition is at stake.
“I believe if people care enough to come to the polls, they should be allowed to,” said Steele, who helped voters at the Deer Park-Milan precinct on Tuesday in Deer Park. “It’s one more of our freedoms that we are gradually losing.”
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton estimates the county would save about $170,000 a year by switching to all-mail voting. The county is one of 11 in Washington that didn’t vote exclusively by mail in this year’s general election.
Unlike Washington, neighboring Idaho has steered away from going to wide-scale mail-in voting. Only 13 precincts with fewer than 125 voters apiece have gone to mail-in only. Two precincts in Latah County and three in Shoshone County are among them.
“We’re hoping for some more people to use it,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. In 2006, under federal election laws, Idaho will have to provide handicap-accessible voting machines that will cost up to $6,000 in every precinct.
Kootenai County Elections Supervisor Deedie Beard said most of the county’s absentee voters come to the elections office to cast ballots in the days before the election. Only a few ballots are cast by mail, Beard said.
“There is a big trend for mail ballots,” Beard said. “It’s easy. It’s convenient, but as far as going to all-mail, I don’t know if people would really like it. There are people who want to come in and cast that ballot. It’s tradition.”
The tradition of being at a polling precinct on Election Day is an activity Steele can’t remember not doing.
“I remember when my dad used to work at the polls, which was at the school I went to in Chesterfield,” in southern Idaho, Steele said. “It was more like a community get-together. It was a special warm feeling to see all those people. Most of them were farmers, and we didn’t have the transportation or the roads we do now, yet they made it out to vote.”
Steele, who has worked at Washington polling sites in Mead, Elk, Wildrose Prairie and now Deer Park-Milan, is concerned about going exclusively to mail-in voting based on some of her experiences.
In a past election, an elderly gentleman spent about two hours in the voting booth, when Steele asked him if she could help. The man resisted at first, she said. But when the computer wouldn’t take his ballot, he agreed to let her assist him. He returned to the voting booth. When he came out a short time later, the computer accepted his ballot.
“If it had been a mail-in vote, his ballot would have been rejected,” Steele said. “To lose our right to go the polls is wrong.
“Most who come to the polls are World War II vets. They really love their country,” said Steele, who had five brothers in the war. “I love this country.”