Now that Orcas voters are looking in their rearview mirror at the most recent special election, it’s a good time for a refresher course on how elections actually work in the county and the state.
“It was a ruling from the legislature,” said San Juan County Elections Administrator Doris Schaller. “It was up to the individual counties at first. All the counties went to vote by mail except Pierce county.”
Washington state has allowed residents to vote by mail since 1915 only if they were unable to vote at their precinct on Election Day. In 1974, Washington allowed voters to choose the option of voting by mail as a preference; there was no excuse required, you just had to request it. Then in 1985, people with disabilities and seniors over the age of 65 could request ballots by mail be sent to them every election.
Legislature began allowing all citizens to vote by mail or at a polling facility in 1993, and in 2005, the state allowed each county to choose whether it wanted to go entirely to vote by mail. The Washington State Secretary of State found that 75 percent of Washingtonian voters were doing it by mail, and every county but Pierce had switched to that style. Finally, in 2011, Governor Christine Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5124, making vote by mail the official voting process in the state.
Schaller said that this change has been for the better.
“The participation of voting is much greater with mail ballots,” she said. “Who knows what you’re going to be doing on a certain day? This way you can vote ahead of time … It’s a more thought-out process. ”
Whether or not vote by mail increases voter participation has been the topic of discussion over the years. A 2014 Walden University College of Social and Behavioral Sciences dissertation by Ph.D. candidate Patrick McDonald studied the cost and effectiveness of Oregon and Washington’s vote by mail process.
“The time-series design analysis showed that voting by mail increased voter turnout and higher ballot completion than poll site voting,” wrote McDonald, who also found that the cost of vote by mail did not increase the cost of elections. “…Voting by mail enhances the opportunity for citizens to engage in democratic elections, thus influencing government and those who govern.”
Three years prior, however, a study in the June 2011 edition of the “Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy” by Elizabeth Bergman and Philip A. Yates disagreed that vote by mail is more effective. Their study was of elections in California, which still offers both by mail and in-person voting, so it can vary widely from Washington state.
“We analyzed the behavior of 97,381 individual voters across four elections from 2006 to 2008 and found that when all-mail balloting was implemented, the estimated odds of an individual registrant voting decreased by 13.2 percent,” they wrote.
Another study, published in the July 2013 edition of “Political Research Quarterly,” did focus on how the vote by mail reform has affected voter turnout in Washington state. The study was written by Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber and Seth J. Hill.
“… In Washington state, we find that the reform increased aggregate participation by two to four percentage points,” they said. “We also find that the reform increased turnout more for lower-participating registrants than for frequent voters, suggesting that all-mail voting reduces turnout disparities between these groups.”
Schaller echoed these studies in her statements to the Sounder.
“In recent years, since we’ve been all vote by mail – of course, this is nationwide – turnout has been steadily dropping,” she said. “Nationwide, [all voting turnout has] gone down. But we still believe more people vote if we mail them a ballot.”
Nationally, fewer people have been voting in elections and Washington state is not immune to this decline. See the attached graph voter turnout for Washington in the presidential elections since 2000.
Security is paramount when it comes to vote by mail. Voter fraud was a major factor in the litigation following the 2004 Washington state gubernatorial race, which elected the aforementioned Gregoire to the state’s highest office.
The ballot is designed to reflect what precinct a voter’s physical residence is located. This difference in design allows the election office to know what the voter turnout in that precinct was and how the population voted. Voting remains completely anonymous.