OLYMPIA – Counties would be able to shift to all-mail elections under a package of voting reforms that passed the Senate on Friday.
Among three bills approved by senators, Senate Bill 5744 would allow counties the option of holding mail-only elections. Senators also approved measures to require the state to produce a manual on election laws and regulations, and to require electronic voting systems to produce paper records.
The election reforms are being proposed in the wake of Washington’s historically close governor’s race, which Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes. Republicans are contesting the election, and have released a list of voters they say were ineligible to vote.
Of the three bills passed, the mail-in voting proposal received the most debate. The bill, SB 5744, gives counties the ability to opt for a mail-in voting system, instead of the current system of polling places and absentee balloting.
While the bill doesn’t require the entire state to vote by mail, as Oregon chose to do in 1998, it may hasten the process by giving counties the option of eliminating poll sites. That provision led some to argue that voters will have fewer choices.
Advocates of the bill said it would make voting easier and more accessible. Those in favor also said nearly 80 percent of voting in most counties is done through ballots sent through the mail, and that the bill does not make mail-in voting mandatory; it makes it an option for counties to pursue.
Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, said he and his wife have been voting by mail for as long as he can remember.
“The mail comes, the ballots are there, I make sure my wife gets hers and she makes sure I get mine. Yes, there is the possibility that one of us could vote for the other, but it has been very convenient for us to be able to vote by mail.”
Opponents were concerned with security issues. They said it would be difficult to verify who actually cast the vote when a ballot is received. Also, opponents argued that mandating voting through mail exclusively takes away a citizen’s ability to vote at a poll.
“If you value your right to vote you should take the time to go to the polls and vote,” said Sen. James Hargrove, R-Grays Harbor. Hargrove also said the mail-in voting would create “fast-food easy” elections that would result in “massive fraud.”
The legislation says each county council or board of commissioners would make the decision. Currently, a county can make the switch only if it has no precincts of more than 200 people. Ferry, Okanogan, Clallam and Skamania counties already have all-mail voting, and Whatcom and Mason counties are making the switch. Other counties have indicated they want to study mail-only ballots.
Another bill, SB 5564, requires the Secretary of State to prepare an easy-to-use manual of election rules and laws. The manual would be made available in all vote-counting centers in the state.
“Had we followed all the laws in the book the first time we wouldn’t have had a problem in the first place,” said Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, explaining to the Senate why he was voting against the bill.
“What we’re going to do here is have an added cost that won’t do anything.”
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