Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman knows from personal experience the disappointment that comes when a voter has his or her ballot rejected by election officials.
Years ago, Wyman was living in Germany and could not get her ballot returned to Los Angeles County in California in time to meet the counting deadline.
“I know what it’s like to be out of the country and try to vote on time,” said Wyman, Thurston County’s top elections official. “It’s frustrating when you have people who want to participate in the election, but can’t because of the limits of the overseas mail system.”
Secretary of State Sam Reed has sponsored a bill in the state Legislature that would allow military and overseas voters to return their ballot via e-mail or fax. In the 2008 general election in Washington, more than 67,000 military and overseas ballots were mailed out. Wyman said that in the 2009 general election, 1 percent of the overseas ballots were rejected locally because they arrived too late. She said, “1 percent is 1 percent too many.”
There are drawbacks to Reed’s proposal. Voters must waive their right to secrecy, for example. But House Bill 2483 is a common sense solution to a significant problem.
“This bill would help ensure that our military and overseas voters can send in their ballot in time to be counted,” said Reed. “There have been occasions when military personnel from our state who are in transit or are stationed in some remote location in Iraq or Afghanistan can’t return their ballot in time to be counted. We need to give all voters a fair opportunity to vote, and this bill helps us accomplish this worthy goal.”
The state House of Representatives last week passed HB 2483 on a vote of 96-0. The bill awaits action in the state Senate.
As noted in the House bill report, federal law requires that ballots be sent to overseas and service voters and that there be a minimum of 45 days of transit time between the date ballots are mailed and the date the voted ballots are due back to local election administrators. State law requires that ballots must be mailed at least 18 days before a primary or election. In order for a ballot to be counted, it must be postmarked no later than Election Day, and must reach the county auditor before the results are certified.
Wyman and her election staff have been faxing ballots to overseas voters since 1993, and e-mailing ballots overseas since 1996. While state law has allowed those voters to return their ballots via fax or e-mail, the original ballot with the voter’s signature must be returned by certification date for the votes to be counted. The proposed legislation wipes away the requirement to return the original.
It’s not uncommon for ballots mailed overseas to take two, three, even four weeks to arrive in her office, Wyman said. “Some of these are coming from Peace Corp workers or missionaries in jungles of remote corners of the world. The mail system is very slow.”
Wyman is a supporter of Reed’s proposed legislation, as are other county auditors. “It’s using technology to make sure people have an opportunity to participate.” This is not voting via the Internet, Wyman is quick to note. That raises a whole set of other concerns.
Under House Bill 2483, an overseas or service voter may receive a ballot by fax, e-mail, or other electronic means. A voted ballot may be returned by fax or e-mail if the voter’s signature on the declaration accompanies the ballot.
Under the law, the county auditor must establish procedures to protect the secrecy of the voted ballot. Wyman notes that voters waive their right to secrecy when they return their ballots via electronic means. “It’s a voter’s choice, but voters tell us they feel so strongly in their desire to participate that they are willing to give up their secret ballot.”
Washington is not plowing new ground here. Faxed or e-mailed ballots already are counted in 20 states: Oregon, Alaska, Montana, California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
The state Senate should pass House Bill 2483 and make Washington the 21st state to make it easier for overseas citizens to vote in elections.