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Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - Page updated at 01:59 PM

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Guest columnist

Done right, vote-by-mail will improve county elections

Special to The Times

On June 19, the King County Council approved legislation that paves the way for all King County's elections to be conducted by mail. The council's decision is the beginning of the process for moving to vote-by-mail, and we have much preparation work ahead to ensure a smooth transition.

Based on the input we received from citizens and election experts, the council established a number of conditions that must be addressed before the transition to vote-by-mail elections occurs in 2007 or 2008.

We required that the King County Department of Records, Elections and Licensing Services implement an electronic tracking system that will allow voters to use the Internet to verify that their votes are properly handled and counted. This tracking system will give each voter the peace of mind that her or his mailed ballot will reach its destination safely.

The council also required that the elections department establish a plan for regional voting centers and ballot drop boxes for those who need or desire to vote in person. Voting centers will be distributed geographically throughout the county so that, although voters may no longer have polling places in their neighborhoods, they will have one in their community.

The question that has most surrounded the vote-by-mail proposal in recent weeks is how the departure of Elections Director Dean Logan will impact the transition. The council solved this question by requiring that a new department director and superintendent of elections be appointed and confirmed prior to transitioning to vote-by-mail.

A successful vote-by-mail system will require strong leadership and a skilled staff. Logan is leaving the records and elections department more stable than it has been in years and brought professionalism and technical expertise to a job that demands both. I welcome the opportunity to build on that momentum and urge King County Executive Ron Sims to bring the council a candidate who is a proven elections professional and a strong manager capable of taking King County elections to the next level.

Achieving a higher level of performance from our elections system is dependent on transitioning to a single vote-by-mail system. The King County Council appointed a group of citizens with diverse elections expertise to provide recommendations. That group, the Citizen's Elections Oversight Committee, endorsed vote-by-mail and reported, "As the public holds the elections section more accountable, there is a related responsibility to simplify the inherently complex election process."

That complex process in King County today involves a full-scale mail-processing operation and 528 polling places staffed by 4,000 poll workers. These poll workers must be thoroughly trained prior to each election, and the polling places they staff are increasingly vacant as more voters — 70 to 80 percent in recent elections — are choosing to cast their votes from the comfort of their homes. Voters are finding that mail ballots provide them with a more convenient, flexible and thoughtful way of casting their votes.

For those who worry about the important issue of ballot security, simplifying the process and focusing security measures on one system will improve the integrity of our elections and limit the dependency on human interaction and ballot handling.

It is unfortunate that in this county, discussions about vote-by-mail and other improvements to our election system continue to be hampered by partisan rancor and citizen extremists. Some have erroneously mistaken these few voices as a reflection of the entire council.

I'm proud that this council as a body exercised its policy oversight to help turn around our elections system. The council has taken more than a dozen legislative actions over the past three years to reform and improve the performance of the Department of Records, Elections and Licensing Services — the majority approved with bipartisan support. In each instance, the legislation was met with concurrence by Logan and signed by Sims.

The same is true with vote-by-mail. We have engaged our citizens to advise us and make meaningful recommendations, and we have brought in independent national experts. We have done our job and will continue to do so.

Larry Phillips, D-Seattle, is chairman of the Metropolitan King County Council.

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