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Dec. 3, 2020

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In Clark County, vote-by-mail called a clear winner

Longtime system praised as safe, efficient practice that boosts voter turnout

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
5 Photos
Election workers use protective gloves to handle ballots at the Clark County Elections Office while processing the Aug. 4 primary election.
Election workers use protective gloves to handle ballots at the Clark County Elections Office while processing the Aug. 4 primary election. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Ninety percent. That’s what Clark County Elections Supervisor Cathie Garber anticipates voter turnout will look like in the 2020 presidential election.

If that happens, she added, it will be unprecedented.

“We are expecting probably a historic turnout for this election,” Garber said, pointing to the primary, when more than half of the county’s registered voters cast their ballots.

“It just amazed us how many people turned out,” she said.

Once upon a time, a 90 percent turnout among registered voters in Clark County would be unheard of. In 1992, when 77.5 percent cast their ballots, The Columbian touted the sky-high voter turnout as one of the best in the county’s history.

Elections since have put that statistic to shame, with voter turnout in presidential elections as high as 85 percent.

What’s changed? Many things. But one of the biggest was the implementation of vote-by-mail.

Is voting by mail secure?

President Donald Trump is critical of vote-by-mail, claiming that the practice opens up elections to fraud. On July 30, he tweeted that universal mail-in voting would make 2020 “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” He suggested delaying the election “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

There’s no evidence to suggest that voting by mail makes elections more susceptible to voter fraud. A June report from The Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, found that the number of fraudulent vote attempts are so tiny as to be negligible among five states that already use vote-by-mail. In Washington, for example, Brookings found seven attempts at voter fraud between 2004 and 2010 out of 10,605,749 votes cast in the same period, less than a millionth of a percentage point. A comparable study from the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, identified 12 attempts at fraud.

Across Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah, over various periods of time ranging from 1982 to 2019, the Brookings study found a grand total of 29 attempts at mail-in voter fraud, out of nearly 50 million total votes cast.

In Washington, casting ballots by mail is old news. But vote-by-mail has become a lightning rod nationwide, as other states — worried about voters staying home to avoid COVID-19 exposure — scramble to find a safe, socially distanced way to conduct elections.

Impact on turnout

The 1992 general was the last presidential election Clark County conducted almost exclusively through in-person voting (absentee ballots were available, but they were the exception). Starting in 1996, the county offered both mail-in and in-person options. By 2006, the elections office transitioned fully to mailed ballots and eliminated voting booths.

Multiple factors influence voter turnout. In Clark County, for example, voters are historically more likely to show up when there’s an open presidential seat instead of an incumbent running. Excitement generated by any given candidate is another factor.

But in the years following the transition to mail-in voting, Clark County’s voter turnout trended higher than in years past: 74.9 percent in 2000, 85 percent in 2004, 85.3 percent in 2008, 79.6 percent in 2012 and 77.3 percent in 2016.

Turnout in Clark County followed a broader trend identified in 2018 by The Poynter Institute, which found jurisdictions that implement vote-by-mail tend to see a modest increase in voter turnout. The increase, the study found, is likely related to the switch, though other factors could play a role.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said the established, tested vote-by-mail system works well in Washington. However, she would not support a bill that would implement universal mail-in voting nationwide, she said.

The congresswoman added that she’s a co-sponsor on the Election Security Assistance Act, which would allocate $380 million in grants for states to improve their existing elections infrastructure.

“Many voters prefer to vote at the polls, and it should be up to the states to continue that practice if they choose,” Herrera Beutler said. “Other states that do not have the benefit of our experience with vote-by-mail systems are now scrambling to create them as a result of the pandemic.”

Rocky transition

When Clark County switched to mail-in voting, it was an occasionally bumpy road.

Two weeks after the 1996 general election, The Columbian reported that frustrated candidates, supporters and election workers were lamenting how long it took to get a final tally.

Between 1996 and 2005, when voters could choose between mail-in ballots and voting in person, people who attempted to do both — whether through malice, or more commonly through sheer forgetfulness — were a frequent source of strife.

In the 1999 election, for example, about 950 Clark County residents were sent ballots in the mail but showed up to vote at polling places anyway. The Columbian reported on Dec. 13, 1999, that 22 people actually voted twice. Their second ballots were discounted, and the cases were referred to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

“I wanted to demonstrate to people that the system works,” Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey told The Columbian at the time. “We do catch people trying to vote twice.”

Nowadays, Garber said, cases of actual attempted fraud are few and far between. The most common version comes in the form of “a well-meaning spouse” who signs their partner’s ballot for them, Garber said.

They get a stern letter, and the case is passed along to the sheriff’s office. Nobody’s ever tried it twice, she added.

“With every kind of system, you will have, from time to time, a voter thinking they can do something outside what’s allowed,” Garber said.

Clark County’s elections officers are trained in handwriting analysis. To ensure the validity of ballots, they compare the signature on the ballot to the voter’s signature when they registered, looking for multiple points of comparison.

“We have a really great group of people here that are really almost like detectives,” Garber said. “We’ve all been trained by the Washington state police fraud unit, and we get annual training from them. We do know what we’re doing.”

USPS plays pivotal role

The U.S. Postal Service is, unsurprisingly, a critical piece of the puzzle required for mail-in elections to run smoothly.

The federal office is the subject of recent upheaval, including cuts and policy changes that could slow down mail service. While U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said that he’ll delay changes until after November, some critics and lawmakers worry that the damage is already done.

Locally, a group of protesters is planning rallies at 11 a.m. today in front of post office locations in downtown Vancouver and Orchards to demonstrate their opposition to the cuts.

Garber said that the elections office is fielding a high volume of phone calls from Clark County voters worried about how mail delays could impact their ballots.

“People are just calling, and they are concerned. They’re hearing a lot of things in the news,” Garber said.

Garber said she’s not worried. Conversations with the postal plant manager in Portland, which handles Clark County’s ballots, assuaged her concerns, she said.

“They told us it will be business as usual for our ballots in November,” Garber said. “They treat our mail better than first class; they consider it express mail. They are a great partner for us.”

For anyone worried about the delays, the best thing you can do is vote as early as possible, Garber said.

The county elections office plans to start mailing out ballots on Oct. 16, and they should appear in mailboxes around Oct. 21. Voters should fill them out and return them as quickly as possible, especially if they’re nervous about postal slowdowns.

If the ballot doesn’t arrive within a few days of Oct. 21, Garber recommends reaching out to the elections office immediately.

“If you don’t get it, call us early,” Garber said. Sorting out the problem early leaves a voter with plenty of choices, she added — they can come in person to the elections office, print a replacement ballot online, or request a replacement in the mail.

“The closer we get to Election Day, the less options there are for voters.”

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