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Bethel council mulls mailed ballots to raise local election turnout

  • Author: Anna MacArthur
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 10, 2016

To increase voter turnout for local elections, the City of Bethel is looking into replacing voting at the polls with voting by mail. The thinking behind the shift is more people would vote if ballots were cast more conveniently through the postal service rather than at a poll at a specific time on a specific date, according to a story on KYUK Public Media.

According to the proposal, Bethel's turnout for local elections has remained less than 25 percent over the last four years. Hoping to raise those numbers, Council Member Chuck Herman introduced the measure at Tuesday's city council meeting.

"The idea behind by mail elections is three weeks or a month before the election, ballots are mailed to all registered voters. They need to return them to the mail or a designated spot. These are details that would be worked out," Herman said.

Herman cited a study published in 2000 in the journal Political Behavior. The authors compared voter turnout by mail to turnout at the polls in Oregon over a 14-year period and found an almost 27 percent increase in voter participation in local elections after the state switched to mailed ballots -- a jump from about 19 percent turnout at the polls to about 45 percent turnout via mail.

Herman says mailed elections could routinize voting in Bethel, producing similar outcomes. He says the change could also lead to other benefits like increasing time voters spend researching issues and decreasing election costs through eliminating staff time at polling stations.

Council Member Leif Albertson opposed the change, saying Bethel's current system doesn't disenfranchise voters and the journal article Herman cites says that voting by mail doesn't increase the types of people voting; it just increases participation among people who would already vote but choose not to.

But Alberton's biggest concern is that voting by mail could diminish a ballot's integrity through voter fraud, mis-delivery, or coercion.

"No matter what you tell people, when you go into that booth you're protected and can make a free decision. And I think that's really important to preserve," Albertson said.

Mayor Rick Robb also opposed the measure, saying the city already has a system of early voting in addition to poll voting, and he doesn't want the clerk to spend time changing a system that he says he likes.

"I personally enjoy the great American tradition of going to the polls on Tuesday's," Robb said. "I personally think it's one of the great benefits of democracy, and by going to the polls, it gives interested people the opportunity to go and demonstrate their democratic rights."

Herman countered, saying though some people enjoy going to the polls, that doesn't outweigh the fact that most people aren't going and that going to city hall for early voting still makes voters step outside their routines.

"I think this would go a long way towards getting more involvement from our community, and I think with more community involvement we have more community by-in; we have better governance; we have better understanding of governance; and I think we'll have a better local government and community," Herman said.

This story has been reprinted with permission from the original at KYUK Public Media.

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