All-Mail Voting Moves Us Backward

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No one denies that mail voting has its advantages. You can vote whenever you want to vote, and you don't have to spend the extra time going to the polling place. And, of course, if you are physically unable to go to a polling place, this mere convenience becomes a necessity.

But the problems inherent in mail voting outweigh the benefits, when extended to the entire county. We should still keep mail voting for those who need it, but it should be the exception and not the rule; and it certainly should not be required for everyone.

The greatest problem with mail voting is simple: it is far more prone to error. The County Auditor himself, Bob Terwilliger — the man who pushed us to go to all-mail voting — argued as much just two years ago in the Herald when he explained why we purchased the then-new electronic voting machines (at a cost of $5 million). He noted that:

  • Mail voting is more prone to undervote problems, where voters may have mistakenly skipped a vote
  • Mail voting is prone to overvote problems, where voters may vote too many times in a section (which is impossible on the electronic machines)
  • Mail voting sometimes requires poll workers to guess what a voter's intent was, if there is any stray or unclear mark (which, again, is impossible on the electronic machines)
  • Mail voting tabulation is much slower, and much less accurate

And it's clear that more chances for error means more chances for fraud.

Similarly, recounts, like we had in 2004, are much slower with mail ballots, requiring long and expensive recount procedures. If such long and expensive procedures had a desirable outcome, they would be worth it; but such recounts are also much more error-prone, as ballots become damaged or lost, or new ballots found.

Of course, mail voting also relies on shuffling ballots to and from the voter via the postal system, which introduces even more opportunity for error.

If you never get your ballot, the onus is on you to resolve the problem by contacting the Auditor, presuming you realize there is a problem before it's too late. And, worse, if your ballot is stolen and filled out on your behalf, you might never even realize it.

If you contact the County about your missing ballot in time, they can void the forged one, if they haven't already rejected it via signature verification; but don't rely on that, as it's hard to have faith in signature verification done by pollworkers who received only a few hours of training, and it is easy for potential forgers to get access to signatures through the county's own web site, for anyone who has signed a public document, such as a deed on a house, or a PCO candidacy declaration. Signatures are not nearly as secure as in-person ID verification.

Even if you do receive your ballot and send it in, the onus is on you to follow up by contacting the County to make sure they received it (which, for this year at least, has to be done in person or over the phone, not online). And even then, you can't know that your ballot was tabulated properly.

Yes, most of these problems are not new ones, and indeed, many of them are inherent to all forms of paper voting. But in Snohomish County, we went to electronic voting machines because we recognized that there was a better way, one that solved, or mitigated, most of these problems. And we spent a lot of money to do it.

It's true that electronic voting machines have some problems of their own, but all of them are fixable; that's why the Secretary of State is requiring a paper trail, so we can accurately, if necessary, make sure the number in the machine is correct by checking it to the paper record.

But instead of moving forward to get the best voting system we can, we've taken a huge step backward, just to save a few bucks: literally, just $2.25 per voter, per year, over the first five years (if you accept the county's estimate of $600,000 per year for storage of the new machines, and ignore the increased costs associated with all-mail voting).

The County has done a fine job of upgrading its facilities and procedures to be more effective and to reduce error. They seem to be doing just about the best job that can be done with a mail voting system, and are to be strongly commended for that. But it doesn't change the fact that it's still a mail voting system: it still uses the postal service, it still uses amateur signature verification, and it is still far more prone to error and fraud than any other voting method in use in this state.

There is a single electronic voting machine available for use in Snohomish County. It's in the County Auditor's office, intended for use by disabled voters, but the County Auditor himself said they will not turn anyone away from using it. It can be used during regular Auditor hours from September 8 to Primary Election Day on September 19, and will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the 19th.

I am angry that the County has now made my vote more likely to be lost, destroyed, or improperly tabulated; in effect, because of the increased error rates, my right to vote has been diminished, along with everyone else's. Exercising my right to vote on the one voting machine in use by the County is one thing I can do to ensure that my own vote, at least, is properly counted.


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<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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This page contains a single entry by pudge published on September 4, 2006 1:56 PM.

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