October 31, 2005 in City

County’s Proposition 1 a vote on voting

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Here’s a way to look at Spokane County Ballot Proposition 1: Voters get to vote now on how they want to be voting in the future.

Spokane County commissioners have placed an advisory measure on the Nov. 8 ballot as a way to help them figure out what to do about changes in technology, the law and voter preferences facing the elections office.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, the county’s chief elections officer, said the federal Help America Vote Act is forcing some of these changes quickly. HAVA, as it is often called, requires the county to make it easier for disabled voters to cast their ballots without having to rely on other people to read what’s on the ballot or make the marks for them.

One option, she said, is for the county to continue with the hybrid voting system it has now – about 60 percent of local residents are registered to vote by mail, the rest to vote at the polls – and buy about 100 special machines. That would put at least one machine for disabled voters at each of the 85 poll sites currently open in a countywide election, and have the rest available for breakdowns and replacements. The machines cost between $5,000 and $6,000 each, so that’s an up-front cost of at least $500,000, plus training and annual maintenance on the machines.

The other option is to convert all of the county’s 110,000-plus voters to mail voting, buy about 15 of the machines for disabled voters, and have “mobile voting units” that would make scheduled stops around the county in the weeks before the election.

That would reduce the cost of buying the machines and their ongoing maintenance. It would also save on some wages for poll workers, who now work from sometime before the polls open at 7 a.m. to sometime after they close at 8 p.m. each Election Day.

But it would increase the postage costs for mailing out ballots. (Voters would still pay the postage to mail them back.) And some former poll site workers would be hired to open and process ballots that come into the elections office in the weeks before an election. Dalton estimates that all-mail voting would save the county about $170,000 a year, when the extra costs and savings are totaled up.

“What it comes down to is, vote-by-mail is the best way to meet the goal that every voter has the chance to cast their ballot in private,” she said. “It’s not just a cost savings. We can provide better services.”

But when she asked the commissioners to make the switch earlier this year, they said they were unsure the savings estimates were accurate or worth ending the time-honored democratic tradition of going to the poll site on Election Day and casting a ballot with neighbors.

Some groups also question whether mail voting is as secure as poll-site voting, although last year’s lawsuit over the recount in the razor-thin governor’s race generated allegations about both systems.

Because this is an advisory issue, commissioners are not bound by the results and might decide to keep poll site voting if a slim majority is for mail voting, or vice versa. But if the mandate is clear, they’ve said they’ll do what the voters want.

Either way, Dalton said, they’ll have to decide soon after the election. To comply with federal law, the county must at least have machines for disabled voters on order by Jan. 1, even though they wouldn’t be used until next September’s primary.

There’s no organized campaign on either side of the issue, and no money being spent to convince voters to mark their ballots one way or the other.

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