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Maybe it’s time for the election process to go postal

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I admit I’m a positive kind of person. I see the glass half full and the potential to fill it. 

At election time, I try to remain positive about our country’s election process, but there are times when my disenchantment seeps out.

After the results from last week’s municipal and district elections were posted by the county election office, I found it difficult to mask my disappointment. It wasn’t the choices that bothered me. Rather, it was the lack of voter turnout that drew my attention. 

I could not help but be struck by how few people turned out to vote in the school trustee election. I caught myself wondering if our election system has become a screening process that filters out the busy worker, the forgetful and the ambivalent.

Only 7.9 percent of registered voters participated in last week’s school trustee election in Ronan. Compare that to Polson’s 20.3 percent voter participation at the polls in the school election, which surely benefited from a hotly contested rural fire district election. 

Compare that to Charlo’s mail-in ballot trustee election, which garnered 47 percent voter participation. 

A year ago, only 8.6 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls in the Ronan School District trustee election. Polson’s trustee poll election didn’t fair much better, with 10.1 percent turning out. 

In that same school board election, mail-in ballot elections in Charlo (46.8 percent) and Dayton (45.3 percent) produced much higher voter turnout, though a proposed mill levy probably helped motivate people to turn out in Dayton.

In Montana, city and district elections may be conducted by mail ballot. However, Montana law does not allow mail ballots for other county, state or federal elections.

It’s time for that to change.

As the state has eased the process of voting absentee, more and more voters are taking advantage of this pseudo-mail ballot process. As of Oct. 1, 1999, anyone who wishes to vote absentee in Montana may do so, without having to specify a reason. You can even ask to be placed on a permanent absentee list. 

In the last General election in 2008, fully 42.2 percent of Montana’s registered voters voted by absentee. In Lake County, 5,815 voters utilized an absentee ballot in that 2008 General election — actually, 6,231 absentee ballots were requested, yielding a 93.3 percent ballot return rate. Granted that was a presidential election, which always boosts voter turnout, but that’s still a high number of voters who chose to cast their vote by mail and not at the polls. 

Out of the 14,027 votes cast in Lake County for the 2008 General election, 5,718 absentee ballots were counted, equating to 40.8 percent of actual voters utilizing an absentee ballot. 

The Lake County Elections Office confirmed requests for absentee ballots are on the rise. The office had 1,706 voters on its Annual Absentee voters list and that number has already been eclipsed this year, with 1,811 on the list for June’s primary election.

Our American system of polling has improved with technological advances and voter registration promotion that improves the opportunity for all citizens to participate in elections. Our polling system is the model by which all other elections are judged, especially in terms of election promotion, registration, participation, accuracy, and fairness. 

But as good our election process is, it remains a relatively archaic system that has yet to achieve its fullest potential. 

Our postal and electronic communication systems now allow us unheralded connectivity to our government. Though it would be a challenge to institute a system that is both thoroughly secure and user-friendly, the technology exists today to implement a mail-in ballot system that might very well be cheaper to administer than today’s polling system.

Surely we can come up with a system that combats fraud and opportunities for errant mailing or distribution of ballots, as well as provide for alternate methods of balloting that enables everyone to vote. Not only will there be more participants in the election process, they might well ponder their choices a little more. And who wouldn’t like to have a more thoughtful electorate making important choices?

It will be different, to be sure. Folks are used to making a trip to the polling place, visiting with the helpful volunteers and judges, and using that number two pencil to neatly fill in the correct ovals. Some will cling dearly to the tradition of Election Day’s trip to the poll, but others will welcome the opportunity to casually contemplate their choices on their couch in stocking feet, with reference material spread across the coffee table.

It’s time for Montana’s legislature to take a major step into the 21st century by promoting more voter participation in elections by forging a mail-ballot law for all elections.

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