Politics & Government

Senate slams door on Pierce's poll-site voting

The state Senate narrowly approved two elections bills today including one that forces Pierce County to switch completely to vote-by-mail balloting. Also passing was a measure to move the state’s August primary back by two weeks to ease balloting for overseas and military voters.

Senate Bill 5124 requires all counties to switch to vote by mail exclusively by Jan. 1, 2012. The vote on SB 5124 was 26 to 23.

The measure is a death knell for the 11 percent to 13 percent of Pierce County voters who vote at polls – in the only county of 39 that still hasn't switched to vote-by-mail. A 2005 bill made it easier for county commissioners to make the change, and Secretary of State Sam Reed supports a uniform system for all counties.

Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia said he assumes there are House votes to pass the bill again. Hunt won passage of a similar bill in the House the past two years only to see his effort die in the Senate.

"This is a great victory. It takes us out of federal danger – assuming we get pass it – and gives us a uniform voting system across the state and once again makes us a leader in election reform," Hunt said.

Republican Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester voted with the majority in the Senate, the lone GOP vote in favor. "I think what the bill does is finally create one system, tighten it up, and make it more secure," Swecker said.

Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup and Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam were the lone Democrats crossing over against it. Hargrove suggested the cost of a 44-cent stamp was a poll tax (albeit a small one) and wondered what would happen if an earthquake ever made mail delivery impossible.

Republican Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood and other Pierce County lawmakers made impassioned pleas to let their county leaders decide the matter for themselves.

"You are not creating a legacy today that you can be proud of. You are destroying a legacy. You are mandating what county councils can do," Carrell said in reference to the Pierce County Council's reluctance to make the switch despite prodding by its county elections office. "It shouldn't be about what is cheapest. This is so fundamental to our government."

"I agree with Sen. (Pam) Roach and Sen. Carrell. This is an attack on Pierce County," said Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville.

On the other side, Democratic Sen. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor said it is much more expensive – and he the cost for poll site voting at nearly $17 per ballot, compared to less than $7 for mail-ins. "As a Pierce County taxpayer that matters to me," he said.

Republican Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver said he misses poll-site voting and wishes it could be available so he could use it to teach his children the importance of voting. With mail-in ballots, Benton said, “It’s like the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes ”

The Senate also approved Senate Bill 5171 to move the primary election two weeks earlier in August. The vote was 47-to-1; only Republican Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake voted against it.

Lawmakers voted a few years ago to move the primary election from the third week of September to the third week of August. Despite that, local elections officials say it is still a challenge to count the overseas ballots in the primary in time to prepare ballots for the general election.