S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.1210.votebymail.htm

SC should look at new way of voting
By Andy Brack, Publisher
SC Statehouse Report

DEC. 10, 2006 - - If you were to hear of a new way of voting that could significantly increase participation, it might be a good idea to take a look at it.

South Carolina lawmakers need to look at how Oregon votes. Instead of spending millions on new voting machines that malfunction and scare some voters, instead of paying hundreds of thousands for election-day workers who seem stressed out and instead of having party leaders spend tens of thousands of dollars on strategies to get people to the polls, how about voting by mail?

In Oregon, it works. In the recent elections, 70 percent of voters participated. Two years back in the presidential race, some 88 percent of registered voters cast ballots by mail.

Eighty-eight percent. Imagine that. In South Carolina, that means some 1.8 million voters would have turned up to vote recently, 700,000 more than the 1.1 million who showed up in November when only 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Oregon started experimenting with voting by mail in 1981 in local elections. By the mid-1990s, it had the first statewide election when a replacement was sought for disgraced former Sen. Bob Packwood. The results were so good that the League of Women Voters pushed a ballot initiative in 1998 for all voting to be done by mail. It carried the day overwhelmingly with 67 percent of voters approving.

A couple of years back, a study showed voters preferred this new method because of its ease, among other things. Across every demographic and attitudinal category, the results were the same - - about 80 percent of voters approved of mail-in ballots.

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Critics outside Oregon say they're concerned about voter fraud, which is something Oregon really hasn't experienced. So with all of the problems in the past election with new touch-screen voting machines and the amount of education required for people to use them, going back to something simpler - - checking boxes on a piece of paper that's fed into a computer - - might be easier, safer, cheaper and more pragmatic.

In a recent column in The New York Times, U.S. Postal Rate Commissioner Ruth Goldway observed that voting by mail could have real advantages nationwide: "Voters would not need to take time off from work, find transportation, find the right polling station, get babysitters or rush through reading complicated ballot initiatives." More importantly, voting by mail could allow states to save up to 40 percent of the costs of running elections - - and each ballot would be its own paper trail. Anyone interfering with a ballot could face federal mail fraud charges.

Here's how voting by mail works in Oregon - - and how it could work here:

  • About three weeks before an election, every household gets a voters' pamphlet that describes the election process.

  • Some 14-18 days before an election, ballots are mailed to each registered voters. The post office doesn't forward ballots.

  • Voters fill in a form that includes the bubbles familiar to anyone who has bought a lottery ticket or taken the SAT.

  • They mail in ballots - or drop them at an authorized election drop site (usually at a county election office) before 8 p.m. on voting day.

  • It is up to voters to return ballots before 8 p.m. on voting day. If they don't, their ballot isn't counted.

Charleston School of Law professor John Simpkins, who is working on a book about ways to improve Southern political participation, said voting by mail could greatly increase citizen participation in government.

It's almost sad that he has to remind people, but "That matters because our government is a representative democracy and it should be as representative of the wishes of the people as possible."

In our state, where half the people aren't registered and half of those who are registered generally don't vote, having more participation certainly can't hurt. In fact, it would make South Carolina a better place.

Learn more about Oregon voting at: www.oregonvotes.org. Send your comments to Andy Brack at brack@statehousereport.com. His book of commentary, Bugging the Palmettos, is available for $15.00. Click here for more.

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