County mulls all-mail ballots

Kitsap County could switch to a vote-by-mail system in time for this fall’s primary election, if the county government can fulfill the requirements to make it so.

“I really hate to do this,” said North Kitsap Commissioner Chris Endresen, who said she values the act of voting at the polls. “But you can’t argue with these figures.”

The statistics, as presented by auditor Karen Flynn to the board of commissioners during a Monday afternoon study session, tip the financial and logistical scales in favor of mail ballots.

Nearly 86 percent of Kitsap residents already vote by mail, Flynn said, and their numbers are steadily increasing.

The Kitsap mail-in rate is significantly higher than the 70 percent rate statewide.

“If more than 80 percent of people are already doing this, it makes it hard to justify anything else,” South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel said.

Two recent legislative acts are forcing the issue.

Municipalities choosing to maintain polling places must upgrade their machines to handicapped-accessible units by the next federal election in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature has granted permission for each county to decide the issue for itself.

Monday, the commissioners instructed their staff to find out how to conduct the process and set up the public meetings for input.

The financial argument is equally compelling. While there are substantial federal grants available for the purpose, the county would have to come up with $739,000 in equipment expenditures – plus training costs – if it does not change the system by year’s end.

The “all-mail” system is a slight misnomer. The county would still be required to purchase touch-screen voting computers at $6,000 each for installation at selected ballot-drop locations.

The only disadvantage of the vote-by-mail system, Flynn said, is that it replaces the tradition of the polling place.

However, she said, it could bring a new tradition, that of arguing over votes and discussing issues as you mark your ballot at the kitchen table.

Flynn said another factor supporting the mail vote was the declining availability of locations for polling places.

“We are using a lot of churches,” she said. “And a lot of voters don’t think that is entirely appropriate.”

Angel said the inclination to vote by mail has changed how she campaigned. During the last election, she quit going door to door because everyone she visited had already voted.

Another change – albeit a minor one – is the eventual disappearance of the little red “I Voted” stickers people get at the polls.

“Once we spent $5,000 putting them in with the absentee ballots, and nobody noticed,” Flynn said. “So we’re not likely to do that again.”

Central Kitsap Commissioner Patty Lent cast the vote-by-mail question in a different light.

“Our grandchildren will be voting on-line,” she said. “So this won’t be an issue. But with all these changes, it’s important to remember the flag and the Statue of Liberty and all the things that make freedom great.”

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