County moves to mail-in election system

And then there were 27.

Tuesday morning, Yakima County commissioners voted to make Yakima County the 27th county in the state to move to an all-mail election system.

The decision came after listening to more than a dozen people take to the podium and express their opinions and concerns in making the switch. Opinions in the audience ranged from those who thought going to an all-mail election system would be beneficial, while others were concerned about the security issues involved with putting all of the county's ballots through the mail.

"(When) I drop it in a mail box I don't know if someone is going to steal the whole bloody mail box," said Benine McDonnell, one of the concerned citizens who spoke against making the switch.

Yakima County Auditor Corky Mattingly addressed concerns about security, and explained to the commissioners why her department is pushing for an all-mail election.

Mattingly said there were two reasons her department decided that it was time to try to make the switch. She said there are new requirements going into place on Jan. 1, 2006 that will make it necessary for the county to retrofit all of its new e-Slate voting machines, to ensure that they leave a recountable paper trail. Mattingly said retrofitting all of the new machines carries a price tag of approximately $260,000. She added that recently passed legislation is also making it a lot easier for counties across the state to move to an all-mail election system.

According to Mattingly, having an all absentee election brings with it many benefits. She said it's convenient, because it allows people to vote in their homes and when they have time "...rather than having to structure their whole day around (finding) a time to go to the polls," Mattingly said.

Mattingly said a majority of voters are already voting by mail. She said in the 2004 general election 60 percent of the votes cast were cast by mail.

Mattingly said moving to an all-mail system will also mean that only 15 of the county's e-Slate voting machines will have to be retrofitted. The machines would then be used to help those with disabilities vote.

Moving to an all-mail system will also save the county money. Mattingly said moving to an all-mail voting system will save the county approximately $20,000 per election, of which there are typically two to three held each year.

"It's a more efficient way to run an election," Mattingly said.

She added that it's also a secure way to run an election. Mattingly said every signature, which is located on the outside envelope of an absentee ballot, is verified before the envelope is ever opened and the vote is counted.

Mattingly added that having an all-mail election system will also bring control of the election back into the county auditor's office, instead of handing over control to poll workers.

Although the county will be going to an all-mail system, Mattingly said she has plans to having several manned ballot drop-offs in the lower, middle and upper Valley. She said this will mean that those voters who are uneasy about putting their ballot in the mail will have a place they can go to personally hand-deliver their ballot.

"I am very much aware of a feeling of loss in the community that poll voters feel," Mattingly said. She added that the county isn't taking away the right to vote.

As for the new voting machines the county bought and used during the last election, Mattingly said there is still time to trade those in. She said the money raised from trading those machines in can then be used to purchase new equipment to help the auditor's office prepare for having more mail-in ballots coming through their door.

Graciela Villanueva-Lopez with the Washington State Commission of Hispanic Affairs spoke yesterday in support of making the switch.

"Voting by mail allows for more thoughtful voting," Lopez said.

She added that it also makes it easier for people to vote, explaining that it no longer makes it necessary to plan your day around going to the polls on election day.

"(It also) eliminates the intimidation factor of going to the polls," Lopez said.

Ricardo Garcia of Wapato said he also supports the recommendation by the county auditor.

Garcia said perhaps moving to an all-mail voting system will mean higher voter turnouts, especially for local elections.

Jeff Matson of Sunnyside said that although he voted by absentee ballot in the last election, he was opposed to making the switch.

"I really enjoy going to the polls," Matson said.

Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, the only commissioner to vote against making the switch, said he didn't know how the county could tell people, like Matson, that they would no longer be able to vote at the polls.

Commissioner Jesse Palacios acknowledged that it is a tough decision, but with so many more people voting by absentee ballot a majority of the people have already spoken.

"Only 17 percent (of voters) used the polls in the 2004 general election," Palacios said.

In the end, Yakima County Commissioners Palacios and Ron Gamache voted to approve the change. According to Mattingly, the new system should be in place in time for the 2005 general election.


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