Now that all 39 counties in our state use vote-by-mail systems, we can expect any lingering criticism to subside, correct? Not so fast. No matter how entrenched Washington (and Oregon) have become in all-mail voting, the doubters and complainers are a durable bunch.
We bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, about half of Clark County voters have been mailed ballots for Tuesday’s primary. Other local voters have only two-candidate races and have no decisions to make until the Nov. 8 election. (All voters will be mailed general election ballots on Oct. 19.) Second, beware any “See! I told you so!” outbursts from critics who might have seen a Seattle Times story on Thursday.
That story carried the headline, “Voting by mail fails to increase turnout.” An analyst for the Metropolitan King County Council pointed out that voter turnout was about 53 percent in two comparable general elections, one before and one after vote-by-mail became standard there in 2009.
It helps to remember that increasing voter turnout was more an aspiration than a goal as Washington’s counties have gradually shifted to vote-by-mail. In Clark County, that conversion was completed in 2005. On Friday, county Auditor Greg Kimsey said in an email that he never claimed the switch to vote-by-mail would increase voter participation. “The result in Clark County has been that turnout for general elections and primaries has been unaffected,” he noted, “but I do believe vote-by-mail results in higher turnout for the spring special elections.”
Here are a few other key points about vote-by-mail:
It’s probably too soon to draw comparisons between the new system and the old. In The Times’ story, University of Washington professor Matt Barreto said a larger sample size is needed, to compare similar elections over several election cycles.
The Times story also reported statistics that seem to indicate higher turnout. Although voter turnout in King County was 53.8 percent in 2005 before the change and 53.6 percent in 2009 after the change, the turnout was 65.3 percent in 2006 and 71 percent in 2010 after the change. We found a similar trend in Clark County: Voter turnout in 2004 was 82.9 percent in the 2004 presidential election but 85.3 in the 2008 presidential election. Again, though, a larger sample size should be used to draw meaningful conclusions.
Other factors have inspired the evolution to vote-by-mail in the two states. For many elections officials, including Kimsey, the strongest motivation was to correct flaws in the 2004 general election that were caused by trying to run two voting systems (polling stations and mail-in ballots) simultaneously. That goal has been achieved by implementing vote-by-mail.
Although saving money also was not a major goal, Kimsey said that converting to vote-by-mail “allowed Clark County to avoid spending in excess of $1 million on electronic voting machines for polling places.”
Last year we pointed to a 2005 op-ed in The Washington Post by Bill Bradbury, who was Oregon’s secretary of state at the time. He called vote-by-mail “a low-tech, low-cost, reliable and convenient system that makes it easier to vote and easier to count votes.” We still feel the same way.
Many voters love the convenience of having more than two weeks to ponder their ballots and mailing them whenever they choose.
Finally, and to comfort the critics, vote-by-mail is optional. If you simply can’t stand mailing your ballot, take it to one of many collection stations on primary or election day. Or — at any time during the voting “season” — use the 24/7 ballot drop box in the center of 14th Street, one block east of Franklin Street.