Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: How Tillicum got its ballot box, and why it’s potentially a big deal

A voter deposits election ballots in the drop box at the Pierce County Annex, August 1, 2016. Late last month the Pierce County Auditor’s office announced plans to put one of five new ballot boxes to be placed throughout the county this year in Tillicum.
A voter deposits election ballots in the drop box at the Pierce County Annex, August 1, 2016. Late last month the Pierce County Auditor’s office announced plans to put one of five new ballot boxes to be placed throughout the county this year in Tillicum. Staff file, 2016

“It was grassroots,” Cinthia Illan-Vazquez told me.

“And that’s where people power is at.”

Illan-Vazquez, 23, is a longtime resident of Tillicum, the small Lakewood neighborhood tucked between Joint Base Lewis-McChord and American Lake. She grew up here — attending Tillicum Elementary, Woodbrook Middle School and Clover Park High School.

She knows the neighborhood and knows the challenges it faces.

Which is why she was elated last month when the Pierce County Auditor’s office announced plans to put a new ballot box in her backyard — one of five new ballot box locations throughout the county.

Even better, the move came with an added bonus: Starting this year, the auditor’s office has decided to add socioeconomic indicators, such as income and ethnicity, to the list of criteria it considers when placing ballot boxes. (That list also includes population density and utilization.)

The decision did not come out of the blue. Rather, it was reached after a monthslong campaign, designed to put pressure on Auditor Julie Anderson’s office. The effort included an online petition calling for a ballot box in Tillicum that, to date, has garnered signatures from more than 600 people.

“A lot of folks where involved. A lot of community members were involved,” Illan-Vazquez said of the undertaking.

“What makes me really optimistic is this was community-led,” she continued. “This was because folk in the community wanted (a ballot box), and needed it, and pushed for it.”

What makes me really optimistic is this was community led. This was because folk in the community wanted (a ballot box), and needed it, and pushed for it.

Tillicum resident Cinthia Illan-Vazquez

The need for a physical ballot box in Tillicum, where available demographic information shows a significant Hispanic and nonwhite population burdened by high rates of poverty, comes down to voter enfranchisement, according to Felicia Jarvis, co-chair of the Pierce County Young Democrats.

While doorbelling in the neighborhood last summer, Jarvis said she encountered many residents who work long hours, struggle with transportation issues, don’t always have money for stamps, and who say their mail service is sometimes unreliable. Add the fact that their nearest ballot box locations are at Lakewood City Hall and in DuPont, and the list of small obstacles amounted to an unreasonable burden for would-be voters.

Jarvis says she heard from people who cast ballots when poll voting was available at the local community center, but have slipped into democratic inaction since all-mail voting took hold.

“We were talking to voters that didn’t vote very often, or hadn’t voted at all,” Jarvis said of the experience. “We kept hearing that it would be way easier if we had a ballot box.”

Securing the ballot box for Tillicum — which is expected to be in place by the August primary, after a final location is decided — proved to be anything but simple, Jarvis said.

She describes what felt like an uphill battle, with the bureaucratic deck stacked against the activists.

Anderson attempted to explain just how ballot boxes are distributed throughout the county — and how those decisions are made. She met with residents and attended meetings in the community, and in an op-ed published in The News Tribune last September, wrote that “Placement is based on location analysis using digital mapping software.”

“We look primarily at population density, so boxes can serve as many citizens as possible,” Anderson said. “Right now, 98 percent of residents are within a 10-mile drive and 88 percent of residents are within a 5-mile drive. We also consider geography, tolls and other variables.”

Anderson also noted that adding more drop boxes isn’t as simple as it might seem. “It takes four to six months to fabricate a box, negotiate easements, secure construction permits, get bids and contract with the property owner,” she explained. “Each box costs $10,000 and requires advance budgeting.”

All of this gave Jarvis, Illan-Vazquez and others the impression they were in for a long, drawn-out fight. Getting a ballot box in Tillicum, they feared, might take years.

So when the Anderson’s office announced in January its intention to give the residents of Tillicum what they were asking for, and have a ballot box in place there by the August primary, the surprise victory felt especially sweet.

The county auditor’s yearly evaluation of ballot boxes usually happens in March. But this year, “We are starting our work a bit earlier than our policy calls for, mostly to incorporate the new social equity criteria in addition to our standard criteria,” Damon Townsend from the auditor’s office said.

We simply decided to try it.

Julie Anderson, on the decision to utilize socioeconomic indicators when deciding where new ballot boxes will be placed

About the potentially important shift to utilizing socioeconomic indicators when deciding where new ballot boxes will be placed, Anderson told me: “We simply decided to try it.”

Certainly seems worth a shot.

“For us, putting a ballot box (in Tillicum) isn’t going to engage or automatically increase the number of folks who are going to be voting,” Illan-Vazquez said, “but it’s definitely making it more accessible to folks.”

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