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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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At polls or by mail: Election choice due

Your friendly poll worker could soon be replaced by your neighborhood letter carrier.

Spokane County commissioners are scheduled to decide today if all county elections starting in 2006 will be conducted by mail.

Pushing the proposal is Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, who said Monday that choosing to stick with traditional precinct polling places could be costly.

That’s because starting Jan. 1, 2006, the county must comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. And that means investing $750,000 in voting machines accessible to disabled voters as well as $70,000 to $100,000 in increased maintenance and operations costs each year.

Going to a vote by mail system would require $205,000 in equipment, but then cost about the same as voting does today.

The system would include voting machines that could be taken out to disabled voters in the days leading up to the election and several voter service centers on Election Day, where people could get assistance and turn in their ballots if they desire.

Dalton said voter turnout might increase under a vote by mail system. Oregon saw a 16 percent increase in primary election turnout when it instituted its vote by mail process.

Still, Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris said that he won’t agree to such a change without a public vote.

“I know she says it will save us money, but at the same time it’s the people’s money,” he said of Dalton’s plan. “And sometimes you just have to let the people have their say.”

But if Spokane County residents are voting via registration, they may have already spoken.

Since 2003, more have registered to cast their votes at the mailbox than at the ballot box. Fifty-seven percent are registered to vote absentee.

And absentee voters are more likely to vote than their poll site counterparts.

Three of four ballots are cast by mail during special and primary elections, said Dalton. And even general elections, which draw more infrequent voters, see just one of three votes cast at precinct polling places.

“What we see is that our truly dedicated poll site voters make up only 10 percent of our voters,” Dalton said.

Commissioners Todd Mielke and Mark Richard could not be reached Monday for comment.

Harris said, costs aside, there’s just something about voting at the polls that can’t be replicated when people vote by mail.

“It’s American to walk into the booth. There’s a flag flying outside the door, and you talk to the people there,” he said.

“You get a warm, fuzzy feeling when you come out.”

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