Saturday, January 17, 2009

Election by Mail?

Below is the text of a bill being proposed by County Councilmember Brenda Ford, who wants to replace traditional polls with a mail-in ballot system, which she believes would encourage greater voter participation. Ford's arguments in favor of the change are contained within the text of the bill. I'm open to persuasion on this issue, but I admit that I can easily see some arguments against it.

The first objection is that this doesn't have to be an either-or situation. It would seem to me that the system that promoted the greatest voter participation would be one that allowed both absentee voting by mail and traditional voting at the polling places.

Second, I frankly doubt that the polling system is the major culprit in this island's notoriously low voter turnout. I suspect that a far bigger factor is the state's machine politics, where there's really no alternative to the Democratic party and huge campaign donations from O'ahu give chosen candidates an almost insuperable advantage; under those circumstances, many people may simply ask, why bother? The county's non-partisan election system, in which many local elections are already determined in the primary, is probably another factor in low general election turnout.

The third argument is the chance that polling places offer for direct participation in the democratic system. I, for one, will miss the sense of community that I feel when going down to Cooper Center and casting my ballot with other Volcano residents. And the polling system gives volunteer poll workers and even more intimate sense of playing an important role in their community. Mail-in ballots, by contrast, seem cold and impersonal.

And finally, I'm not convinced that all the possible kinks have been worked out of the mail-in ballot system. Back in 2004, I got to serve as an election observer, and gained a new appreciation for the layer after layer of procedures that have evolved to protect the integrity of our ballots. (See "The Last Jelly Bean," below). The mail-in system, like electronic balloting, would ditch those procedures and start from scratch, and I'm not at all sure that I trust the Post Office that much.

Anyway, here's Ford's proposal. You decide.

WHEREAS, the State of Hawai‘i has historically one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, and additionally, in 2006, the County of Hawai‘i had 173, 057 residents and 131,203 residents who were 18-years-of-age or older (76% of the population), but only 42.6% of the registered voters voted; and
WHEREAS, in Hawai‘i County, the percentage of voters in the Primary Election consistently dropped from a high of 88.6% in 1959 to 41.8% in 2008, and the percentage of voters for the General Election consistently dropped from a high of 94.3% in 1959 to 67.7% in 2008 with the lowest year being 2006 at 53.2%. In 2008, Hawai‘i County had 99,337 registered voters, but only 67,258 actually voted (67.7%) in the General Election which was also a presidential election year; and
WHEREAS, absentee ballots (combination of mail-in and walk-in) in Hawai‘i County Primary Elections have increased from 1988 (9.8%) through 2008 (40.2%). Absentee ballots in Hawai‘i County General Elections have increased from 9.3% in 1988 to 43.0% in 2008; and
WHEREAS, Oregon has had Vote By Mail elections since 1998. The 2004 Oregon election was one of the most contentious and closely scrutinized elections in Oregon history, and Oregon had the third highest voter turnout in the nation at 86.48% of registered voters. Of the five states with the highest voter turnout in 2004, Oregon was the only state without same-day voter registration. In 2008, Oregon achieved 85.7% voter turnout; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail maximizes voter convenience because voters do not have to stand in lines at the polls, take time off from work, drive in bad weather to precincts, wait for their turn at a limited number of polling booths, or have an illness or personal emergency on Election Day that prevents them from voting; and
WHEREAS, fraud can be protected against by utilizing the Vote By Mail program used in Oregon, to which every signature is verified to ensure that that voter is who they claim to be; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail improves accuracy of voter rolls because mailed ballots are not forwarded by the United States Postal Service but are returned to the county office of elections where voter rolls are accurately kept without the risk of inappropriate purges; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail improves uniformity because there is centralized supervision of ballot processing in the county office of elections, instead of in dispersed polling places. This maintains uniformity and strict compliance with law; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail promotes voter confidence by providing a paper trail where the accuracy and fairness of election results are provable, and the ballots can be recounted, by hand if necessary, to prove to voters that each and every vote was properly counted; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail can cost one-third less than polling place elections for the County of Hawaii, due to the decrease in cost of training and employment of officials for 67 precincts; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail increases voter participation even in small local elections where increased turnouts were seen when voters are provided with an easy and convenient way to vote. With several weeks in which to conduct get-out-the-vote activities, every citizen will be reminded to mail their ballot in plenty of time; and
WHEREAS, Vote By Mail creates a significant gain in informed voting because voters can do their research and think about choices while sitting at home with their Voters' Pamphlet and any other information that they want to use to make reasoned decisions; and
WHEREAS, change often frightens people and the fear of extending the potential of voting to a larger voting population increases fear. While it is the business of government to empower more people to vote, Professor James D. Moore, a professor of political science at the University of Portland said, “Controlling who votes is fundamental in politics... every change made to election rules alters to some degree, the voting population...That’s why, throughout our country’s history, ‘blood has been shed’ over extending the vote---to women, to blacks, to 18-year-olds and to the poor.” The poorest people in Hawai‘i county may not have transportation to the precincts; now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE COUNCIL OF THE COUNTY OF HAWAI‘I that the Legislature of the State of Hawai‘i is requested to create a pilot program for all federal, state, and county primary, general, and special elections based on the State of Oregon Vote By Mail program as the exclusive method for casting ballots in the County of Hawai‘i beginning with the 2010 Primary election and all other elections in the year 2010, all elections in 2012, and continuing through all elections including the General Election in 2014. This provides three full election cycles in which to determine the advantages of Vote By Mail in the County of Hawai‘i; and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the County Clerk shall forward certified copies of this Resolution, together with the proposed bill marked as Exhibit “A”, Absentee Ballot Statistics marked as Exhibit “B”, and a copy of the current State of Oregon “Vote By Mail Procedures Manual” marked as Exhibit “C” to the Mayor of the County of Hawai`i, to the Chairperson of the Hawai‘i State Senate, and to the Chairperson of the State House of Representatives, and to the Chief Election Officer for the State of Hawai‘i.

1 comment:

geoffsugs said...

I stumbled across this post and wanted to givive of someone who works in Oregon politics. Vote by mail is a huge and unqualified success here. It clearly increases turnout, particularly in local elections. The ease of getting that ballot in the mail and having three weeks to fill it out makes the loss of polling places worthwhile (as well as saving a lot of money). I made up for the loss of the community by making sure my son (who voted for the first time this year) was with me at the dining table when I filled my ballot out and got it ready to mail. The system has been incredibly efficient, free of fraud or abuse and successful in giving more people the opportunity to vote. I agree a blend of polling locations and VBM is the best system, but if cost is a factor, I simply believe VBM is a better choice. Just one person's opinion.

Geoff Sugerman