Economics make it hard to keep polls open
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
For the third year in a row, lawmakers from other parts of the state are trying to force Pierce County to conduct all-mail elections – like the other 38 counties already do.
Sadly, passing House Bill 1572 is probably the right thing to do. This newspaper has supported keeping an in-person option for voters, but that doesn’t look feasible anymore.
Given the cost involved with keeping polling places open – about $75,000 per election – it doesn’t make sense to spend that when the county is cutting money to law enforcement, laying off some employees and forcing others to take furloughs.
Most voters have already made the switch. Only about 10 percent of county voters cast their votes at polling places in last November’s general election, and only 3 percent in this month’s schools elections. It costs the auditor’s office about $1,500 per polling place (there were 58 in the November general election, 27 in this months’ school election).
The cost saving of all-mail voting is the reason former county auditor Jan Shabro asked the County Council last year for permission to scrap poll voting temporarily. Her request came only hours after the 2009 Legislature failed to pass the bill that would have forced the change.
County Executive Pat McCarthy later stripped $150,000 from the auditor’s budget, saying the expenditure to keep polls open could no longer be justified. Although the council refused the auditor’s request for a temporary closure, it didn’t restore the $150,000.
The council left Shabro’s successor, Julie Anderson, to figure out how to pay for poll voting without being funded for it. As she put it at the time: “I’m surprised that the County Council, which has been very supportive of poll voting, has basically de-funded poll voting,”
The auditor’s office is also facing the strong possibility of additional expenses once results of the 2010 Census come out. In 2011 the county likely will have to make election materials available in Korean and Spanish due to growth in those populations.
It’s unlikely the County Council will come up with some magical new funding source to keep the polls open – at least not one members would be able to justify to citizens already upset about cuts to the sheriff’s department. Council members might not like disappointing the few voters who still prefer to vote in person, so being forced into all-mail elections by the mean, overstepping Legislature would be more politically acceptable.
Although almost all polling places would close if HB 1572 passes, the auditor would keep a handful of voting centers open for the military, disabled people and voters who absolutely, positively must cast their ballot in person.
The House has already passed HB 1572. The Senate might as well administer the coup de grce. And although it’s too late for this session, lawmakers should consider requiring that ballots be received by Election Day unless they’re mailed from overseas. That would allow for faster election results.
Some have argued that the earlier deadline would discourage voting. But many other states seem to be able to make the Election Day deadline work. So can Washington.