BOISE – Advocates of voting by mail won an unexpected victory Wednesday when a House committee passed legislation allowing counties to hold elections entirely by mail.
The House State Affairs Committee voted 11-7 in favor of House Bill 94, pushed by Kootenai County Clerk Dan English and supported by the secretary of state. Some legislators expressed concern about enabling fraud and uninformed voters, but proponents said vote-by-mail will increase turnout in low-profile elections, save money and make voting more convenient.
“I’m very pleased, especially since there was, we knew, a fair amount of resistance,” English said.
English proposed the change to county officials because election workers and traditional polling places are becoming more scarce, he said. He hopes postal voting will increase turnout in small contests and enhance security.
Currently, voters may request to be mailed absentee ballots. But mail-in voting is allowed in only 22 small precincts, where it has noticeably increased turnout.
Under the change, voters would be mailed ballots about 2 1/2 weeks before elections. They could mail them back or drop them off at secure sites. Voters would also be able to vote using a few traditional machines.
Oregon residents have voted by mail since 1998. In Washington, 34 of 39 counties, including Spokane, conduct elections that way.
Studies of the Oregon system have found it boosts turnout slightly in minor elections among young voters, the retired and women, and has little effect on party affiliation.
Election workers would check ballot signatures before they are counted.
North Idaho businessman Larry Spencer said he traveled early Wednesday morning from Coeur d’Alene to testify against the bill. Mail-in voting initiates a “slippery slope with the cheapening of the vote,” Spencer said, by creating an “entire class of voters” that doesn’t care. “Right now, there’s something almost sacred about the right to vote,” he said.
Continuing absentee voting allows for the same convenience with less risk, he said.
But Duane Smith, Minidoka County clerk, asked, “If it’s OK for some, why isn’t it OK for all?”
Idaho County Clerk Rose Gehring said postal voting has dramatically increased turnout in her county’s four all-mail precincts.
“I’m here to tell you it really does work,” she said, adding that some Idaho County residents must drive through a neighboring county to vote.
“It’s not uncommon at all for people to have to drive over an hour just to vote,” she said.
Dean Haagenson, a former Republican representative from Coeur d’Alene, said he worries about fraud and the loss of an important civic tradition.
“For those of you who know much about the politics of Washington and Oregon, it should be reason enough to reject this out of hand,” he said.
Increased voter turnout is not necessarily good, he said.
“Frankly, if someone has not the gumption to … get off the couch, I don’t want them voting,” he said.
Proponents, however, said everyone should have easy access to voting.
“We’re not talking about lazy couch potatoes here,” said Clete Edmunson, R-Council, adding that the bill would help parents and those who must travel long distances to vote. “You have to have faith in your local county officials.”
“We have good people in Idaho,” Edmunson said. “This is going to help them out.”
Rep. Mark Snodgrass, R-Meridian, said he was offended by some statements.
“I think there are people who have given their lives for the right of people to vote, and those people did not give their lives so that only informed people could vote, they gave their lives so that everybody could vote,” Snodgrass said. “When we start saying we only want informed people to vote … I think that goes against every fiber in my body.”
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest River, said he voted against the bill because people could perpetrate fraud, possibly through house parties where people are encouraged to vote a certain way.