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County clerks push vote-by-mail measure

Rob Ruth

The Idaho Legislature is taking a serious look this session at voting by mail, an election system Washington County Clerk Sharon Widner says is working well in the neighboring states of Oregon and Washington.

Widner, president of the Idaho County Clerks and Recorders Association, the group which joined forces with the Idaho Association of Counties to formally propose voting by mail to state lawmakers, says mail-in balloting’s most obvious benefit is the convenience it offers citizens.

“We keep trying to get the voters interested in voting,” Widner said, noting that participation in elections increased in states adopting a mail-in system.

A second potential benefit, cost-savings, should be near and dear to Widner’s heart and to the hearts of county officials statewide, but Widner says she and others aren’t trying to sell the concept on that basis. “We’re not really looking at this as a cost savings,” she said. “It’ll be for the convenience of the voters... That’s what we’re really emphasizing.”

Still, there’s little escaping the fact that elections in which most ballots are mailed in allow the traditional Election Day infrastructure of polling places, equipment and poll workers to be scaled back. In Washington County, Widner imagines public need could be met by maintaining only two walk-in sites — one at the courthouse in Weiser and another in the Upper Country — but she admits the plan is still just an idea.

Beyond the more obvious savings from cutting the number of workers needed to greet voters and receive their ballots will come a decreased deployment of Automark voting machines, which are designed to help people with physical impairments to cast ballots.

By law, a machine must be made available at each polling place.
Currently, Washington County puts out 10 Automarks on Election Day. Trimming that to two may eliminate required annual maintenance for eight machines. Maintenance is priced at $250 per unit.

The proposal from the clerks and counties associations — introduced Feb. 1 in the Legislature as House Bill 94 — would leave it to the clerk of an individual county to declare any particular election a vote-by-mail election. In that event, ballots would be mailed to all registered voters. Anyone not already registered would still be able to participate by registering and voting in person on the day of the election.

One argument that has been raised against vote-by-mail systems generally concerns a perceived potential for fraud. According to Widner, however, the systems’ signature verification requirements and the experience thus far in the existing vote-by-mail states effectively answer that concern. “They feel there is less chance of voter fraud the way it is done in Oregon now,” she said.

She also cited a growing interest among public entities in eliminating the security threat that comes with opening their facilities’ doors to the general public. For example, schools that serve as polling places would like to avoid having sex offenders on their grounds while classes are in session, but these institutions may not have the luxury of telling students to stay home on Election Day.
Meanwhile, the nation’s increased emphasis on homeland security calls into question the continued use of fire stations as polling sites.

Widner says she’s available to speak to groups interested in knowing more about voting by mail. To schedule a talk, contact Widner or Chief Deputy Clerk Betty Thomas at the Washington County Clerk’s Office at 414-2092.