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Mail-in Malaise 

By ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n Saturday, Nov. 10, four days after the election, ballots were still being counted and Mayor Hession finally conceded. The election story gone stale; the Spokesman-Review made only a one-sentence mention of the continuing count in its Friday issue. As early as Wednesday night, the evening television news had moved on to more pressing matters -- the lead story on one station was GU's first basketball game of the season (an exhibition game!). In the meantime our county elections stalwarts continued counting ballots at glacial speed. I drove to one candidate's election-night gathering only to find an almost-empty parking lot. Oh, I was told, the vote counters went home at 10 pm.





Went home? On election night?





Right then the drama was drained out of the election. Lost was the excitement of the contest, the feeling of civic involvement and the sense of event. All gone, drowned in a sea of bureaucratic blandness. Then came the delays that served to further reduce the symbolic importance of the election. It had been transformed into just one more undistinguishable government-run event, an interminable process that eventually produced winners but must have had the unintended consequences of contributing to voter alienation and loss of interest in all things civic. Imagine Fourth of July fireworks being delayed until July 7.





Surely, this isn't what the state intended when it opened up absentee ballots to any and all without condition. Nor is it what Spokane County intended by closing down polling sites in response to the surge in absentee voting requests. With the ballot validation process now centralized, the counting process has become linear and sequential rather than simultaneous and efficient. So even if you aren't persuaded by my civic argument, the case can be made for polling sites on grounds of efficiency: When validation is made at many sites, the time needed to validate any ballot will be reduced.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & upporters of mail-in ballots assert that the county saves money and that the mail-in procedure produces higher voter turnout. Besides, they point out, so many polling sites had become lonely places, a reflection of all the absentee ballots previously requested. They cite Oregon, which reports high satisfaction with its statewide mail-in ballot.





Well, yes, Oregon uses paper mail-in ballots. But there the comparison to Spokane falls apart. Contributing to our endless vote count is the Washington state RCW requiring only that ballots be postmarked before or on Election Day. A postmark deadline matters not a whit, unless turnaround time matters. Consider your tax returns -- a month, six weeks to get your refund back, who's counting? But when time matters, as is the case when the public awaits the outcome of an election?





To allow ballots to trickle in for two or maybe three days is loony. In Oregon, voters are held responsible for getting their ballots to election central by the time the polls close. Those ballots are counted, and those alone. They don't care about your postmark. In Oregon, if you snooze you lose. As a result, the Oregon election authorities guarantee results by the following morning.





And about those claimed cost savings: First, Spokane County passes off some expenses to the voter in the form of what amounts to a poll tax. I refer to the stamp you have to put on your ballot. (I have to believe that this has been litigated -- after all, poll taxes are unconstitutional.) This reverse subsidy, even allowing for hand deliveries, amounted this past election -- even with its relatively low turnout -- to upwards of $50,000.





Nor does the cost-saving charade stop with the reverse subsidy. In order to do what Oregon does -- that is, get the results out by the next day -- our county commissioners would have to authorize the necessary overtime, which would mean additional expenses. Put another way, the county saves money indirectly by dragging out the vote count job. These are not real savings.





I suspect also that the time lapse between the mailing of the ballot (three weeks ahead) and Election Day must have the effect of altering the voting pattern. I have seen nothing from the county to suggest they have the data to say one way or the other, but intuitively there simply must be some effect. Suppose, for example, that sometime in the final week of the campaign, after more than half the ballots have been mailed back, a certain candidate is caught in a sting operation in, say, Minneapolis. No effect?





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & R & lt;/span & ecommendations? The postmark rule should be changed; furthermore, the county should consider restoring at least some polling sites in the interest of encouraging civic involvement while simplifying logistics. Polling sites could be returned to those neighborhoods that show a history of low absentee requests. As an added benefit, the county could require those who live in precincts designated for polling sites but who wish to continue using the mail-in ballot to deliver the ballot to the designated polling sites where validation can take place on the spot, thereby saving more time. Finally, mailing out ballots three weeks in advance is a bad idea. Things change. Let's not forget the Larry Craig rule. Voters should be given a week, no more.
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