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Auditor Weighs Switch To Vote By Mail System

Voters express support for change

Klickitat County might be next in line to switch exclusively to a "vote by mail" system.

On the Nov. 2 election ballot, the county Auditor's Office included an advisory question asking voters if they wanted to make the change, and a majority supported the idea. The unofficial tally was: Yes, 4,573 votes or 52.15 percent; No, 4,196 votes or 47.85 percent.

Klickitat County Auditor Diana Housden said she planned to discuss the idea with the Board of County Commissioners soon.

"I'm going to take it to the commissioners," Housden said. "It was not as popular as I thought it would be. I thought more people would be excited about it, because I get a number of calls here from people wondering when we're going to go to the vote by mail system."

Five counties in the state already handle their elections strictly with a vote by mail system, including neighboring Skamania County, which went to the arrangement in 2003. The other counties that have gone entirely to vote by mail in recent years are Clallam, Ferry, Okanogan, and Pend Oreille.

Officials in Skamania County said they are pleased with the results.

"I'm really happy with the changes," said Skamania County Auditor Mike Garvison. "We're just running one election instead of two. Before, we had a poll election and the absentee election. This has lessened the stress on the staff. I think it's working great."

Garvison said there were three good reasons to move to a vote by mail system: it saves the county money, it increases turnout, and it leaves a paper trail for recounts.

"There are paper ballots to go back to if we have to do a recount," he said. "We don't have the black box problems some states have."

Garvison noted that the costs of purchasing new election machines alone made the decision a relatively easy one.

"There are big savings in not having to buy touch-screen voting machines for each polling location," he explained. "Each machine costs roughly $6,000."

Garvison also noted that with the new system, voters get ballots about 18 days before the election, which gives them much more time to cast a vote.

"They don't have to worry about picking up their kids, making dinner, then going down to the polls on election day," he said.

Garvison pointed out that voter interest in turning out at the regular polling places had been declining in recent years.

"We had only 12 percent actual turnout at the polls in 2002," he said. "The rest voted by absentee or didn't vote. It was not cost-effective to continue with that. People like going to the polls, but they understand why we did this to save money. Out of 6,300 registered voters in this county, we've had just five complaints."

According to David O'Brien, elections deputy for Skamania County, the turnout in the county during this year's general election was approximately 82 percent.

"The previous high was 1992, when we had 80.7 percent. This is the highest we've ever had. In 2000, it was 72.2 percent," he explained. "We don't have to set up polling places, pay rent, or pay for election board workers. It seems to be working pretty good for us."

Given his experience in Skamania County, Garvison said he would support seeing the entire state go to a vote by mail system, as Oregon has done.

"Oh yes, in an instant," he said.

Garvison added that by state statute, the way elections are conducted are at the sole discretion of each county's auditor.

"The County Commissioners have no say," he explained.

However, Housden said she wanted to reach a consensus before making a final decision.

"It is the Auditor's decision, but I want to have cooperation with the commissioners," Housden said. "It's their county as well, and I do not want to trump that."

According to Housden, the rising costs of conducting elections is a major factor, and changes will need to be made to save the county money.

"We've exceeded our budget for elections this year," Housden explained.

She added that no one in any of the counties that have made the transition to voting exclusively by mail has expressed any regrets.

"Anybody that's gone to it loves it," Housden said. "There are no drawbacks."

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