By Don Spencer
Sometimes institutional memory is important in helping to make decisions. Tonight I would like to share some memory and some of the rationale that led to the establishment of the State’s Vote by Mail Pilot Program of which we are a part by the action of a City Ordinance.
The percentage of voters who voted in the 2007 city elections was 1.6%., and the turn outs in the three elections prior to 2007 were not great either. The average for the first four city elections in this decade of this century was about 9%.
In 2007 City Council was very concerned about the lack of participation and set up a special ad hoc committee meeting to assess all the different options available for increasing voter participation. That committee included:
a State Senator, 2 Delegates, the Chair and a former member of the original City Charter Board, League of Women Votes Rep., the City Clerk, 3 City Council Members.
The preferred option which emerged from that meeting was a vote-by-mail option which had originated in Oregon. The reasons were threefold:
- Vote by mail increased voter participation in Oregon cities from approximately 10 to 20%. The reasons that vote-by-mail was found to be successful were…
- It allows more time flexibility for people who have demanding jobs or job schedules – often caring for very young or very old or impaired family members in the process. Travel and/or having challenging commuting or unpredictable travel schedules also can discourage participation.
- It reduce the difficulties of persons with infirmities and disabilities who had problems with steps at school building and other institutional based polling places as well as getting in and out of vehicles to travel to these places.
- It sometimes reduces travel costs for persons no longer having vehicles or the fuel money to operate them. For some it even reduces having to make a choice of losing income or taking time to go to vote.
- It makes it possible for people to vote at home, to cope with the wording of referendum/recall or initiative statements, and to even have newspaper articles in front of them on their tables as they filled out their ballots.
- Vote by mail is more manageable for cities.
- It secures each vote by the validation of the voter signature just as it is now done for absentee ballots.
- It assures confidentiality by the use of separate return envelopes in the mailing.
- People can still vote traditionally by voting at the City Hall. They can also choose to drop off ballots mailed to them by dropping them off at City Hall or at other designated drop off centers.
- The process can be improved in its efficiency year by year due to the updating of the voters address thanks to the “do not forward” and “address correction requested” directives on ballot exterior envelopes.
- And vote-by-mail has eventually been shown to reduce costs by 30% over the costs of a polling place election. (This is not something that happened all of a sudden in one year, but was a substantial saving that has been realized as a result of experience with the vote-by-mail system.)
- There are numerous voter fraud protections created/built into the system.
- The U.S. Postal Services returns undelivered ballots, corrects addresses and provides postal inspection. It is a full partner in vote-by-mail.
- Envelopes can be bar coded to be able to prevent count of duplicate ballots and to help cross check signature identification.
- The vote-by-mail systems have been studied and found not to benefit any particular party or interest.
It is vitally important that the City complete its commitment to this Vote by Mail Pilot program. The Pilot Program has built into it a provision for two successive city elections. The purpose of this was to allow for changes to take place between the first and second elections and to make comparisons that would prove not only beneficial to the Morgantown voters, but to the citizens of the state and the evaluation/decision–making of the State legislature. The Pilot Program is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2013.
It was Morgantown which requested that the program be adopted by the legislature in the first place. Charlie Byrer, Jenny Selin and I went to Republican Secretary of State Betty Ireland’s office in the spring of 2008 and found that she was very supportive of the concept. After Democrat Natalie Tennant was elected Secretary of State in the fall of 2008, we went again to the Secretary of State’s office and received Natalie Tennant’s enthusiastic endorsement for it as well.
The City representatives then went to our legislators and received their support. Barbara Fleischauer at our request had H.B. 3134 drafted. It was co-signed by 10 other legislators and made its way with lots of help through 39 recorded steps to become part of State law. Ron Bane also went with the City Council delegation to visit Senator Oliverio to ask for his support for this initiative.
We must finish the job and finish strong. We need to continue to work for cost savings and efficiencies in vote-by-mail utilizing the leadership of our excellent City Clerk Linda Little and her deputy Bethany Sypolt. We also continue to need the support and cooperation of the Secretary of State. In the last election the Secretary of State’s office funded the preparation an orientation video for our City web site and prepared orientation brochures for our citizens.
We need to use this initiative to make our city just as inclusive as possible for all of our citizens. The City demonstrated its ability to improve inclusivity when Morgantown’s vote-by mail program – like those in Oregon and Washington cities – moved the total 2011 Morgantown City election votes from 9-11% to over 22% in just the first election!
The Vote-by-Mail Pilot Program is something worth working on for the continued benefits of our citizens and people in other communities throughout West Virginia. It a trial program for our State which helps to better fulfill the Constitutional rights of citizens being able to participate in their government regardless of diverse daily demands on their lives. To enable this is a matter of public leadership. It is also something on which this Council can take pride and build for a more responsive and progressive future!
Note from editor: On October 30th citizens will have the opportunity to comment on Vote by Mail at the Committee of the Whole meeting at Morgantown City Council. DO NOT miss this important opportunity to participate for the sake of increasing participation at elections!