Our View: We’ve got mail
October 18, 2009
Routt County’s first all-mail election raises legitimate questions about ballot security and verification processes. Although there are no allegations thus far of voting fraud or malfeasance, we urge local election officials and election watchers to be vigilant in ensuring that the proper procedures are followed to the strictest letter of the law.
It’s first important to note how we arrived at our first mail-only ballot. A local citizens election committee gave unanimous approval to Routt County Clerk and Recorder Kay Weinland’s proposal in February, and the Routt County Board of Commissioners signed off on it in March. Officials said the move was appropriate given voters’ increasing acceptance and preference for mail and early voting, and the cost savings the county could realize by avoiding a traditional polling place format. It is estimated that this fall’s mail-only election will save the county, and thus taxpayers, about $40,000.
The percentage of local voters who have voted by mail has increased steadily throughout the past four years – 5 percent in 2005, 17 percent in 2006, 26 percent in 2007 and 46 percent in 2008. In the 2008 general election, only 20 percent of county voters cast ballots in a polling booth on Election Day. Thirty-four percent took advantage of early voting options. Weinland has said about 70 percent of registered Routt County voters have signed up to permanently receive mail-in ballots.
Some of the local increase in early and mail-in voting has undoubtedly been driven by the hours-long lines at polling places on Election Day 2006, when some residents were at polling places until 11 p.m. – a full four hours after the polls were supposed to close. In response to that debacle, the county spent about $100,000 to increase its number of electronic voting machines to 60. To comply with federal law, an electronic voting machine has been made available this fall to accommodate disabled voters.
For the vast majority of us, we’ll make our voices heard by filling out the ballots that should have arrived in our mailboxes last week, signing the outside of the envelope, and either affixing a 44-cent stamp to return it to the county or pushing it in the slot at one of five ballot drop-off locations across the county. From there, the ballots will be collected and eventually counted by election judges and officials.
At the heart of the verification process is each voter’s signature of affirmation on the back of the return envelope. The signature area is beneath the return envelope’s enclosure flap. If a voter forgets to sign the envelope, his or her vote will not be counted.
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Whereas in traditional elections a voter is required to provide photo identification when signing in at his or her polling place, the only required identification for a mail-only election is the voter’s signature on the outside of the ballot return envelope. According to state law, election judges verify ballots by checking the signature on the outside of the ballot return envelope with the voter’s signature on file with the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. Weinland said the county has 13 years’ worth of signatures on file from registered voters, including ballots from previous years, voter signature cards, change-of-address forms and others.
So, Weinland and her staff will individually review the signature on every ballot that is returned to the county. We expect the election judges to scrutinize the first signature they review as closely as the 100th and 1,000th signatures. With our local postmaster having already acknowledged that he and his staff won’t be checking post office trash and recycle bins for inadvertently discarded ballots, it’s even more crucial that our election judges be on the lookout for attempted fraud. And as the law is written, signature verification is the only real method of preventing voter fraud. It is, however, important to note that each ballot and return envelope is encoded with a bar code specific to an individual voter, meaning that a stolen ballot, in theory, cannot be signed by a different voter and mistakenly cross-checked against that different voter’s past signatures.
We don’t yet know whether all-mail elections are good or bad for our democracy, but we realize the change causes understandable concern and skepticism from some voters. That’s a good thing. There is nothing more important in a democracy than a vote of the people, and ensuring the fairness and accuracy of that vote should necessitate that all reasonable steps are taken by voters and election officials to protect the will of the people.