Kittitas County began voting by mail in 2008, and Kittitas County Auditor Jerry Pettit believes it has made voting easier and more efficient.
Before the change was made to all-mail ballots, two public hearings and two open house events were conducted in 2007 to get citizens’ reaction.
“We had very little turnout in those meetings,” Pettit said.
“My main concerns were having to maintain and pay for two voting systems: more and more absentee ballots were being mailed out, and we operated polling centers at the same time.”
He said more voters back then were signing up for what’s called a permanent absentee ballot, meaning they would be automatically mailed an absentee ballot for all elections. It was up to the voter to either return it in person to the Auditor’s Office, or mail it back in time to be counted.
Before the change to vote by mail, more than 70 percent of registered voters were getting absentee ballots, leaving the remainder to vote at voting centers on Election Day, one in Ellensburg and another in Cle Elum.
“I would say about only half of those not getting an absentee ballot actually went to the polling locations,” Pettit said. “So, in effect, the county was paying for polling places that served only 15 percent of the voters, those who would actually use them.”
In an Aug. 21, 2007, primary election proposition involving the city of Ellensburg, Fire District 2 and Roslyn, nearly 90 percent of the ballots were absentee ballots.
“The benefits the county gained with all vote-by-mail elections is much more streamlined administration of elections and not having to hire so much part-time help for election day,” Pettit said.
Up to 25 poll workers used to be hired for Election Day, Pettit said, along with part-time help in the Auditor’s Office
For the Nov. 6 election, only one part-time worker has been hired to help with the expected big rate of ballot returns.
Polling place challenge
Anna Williams, as a 31-year veteran of work in the Kittitas County Auditor’s Office, worked on elections in each of those years in some capacity. For 20 of those years she was the county’s election supervisor.
“It was always a challenge to get poll workers,” said Williams, who retired from county work in 2002. “They would need to go through training and be able to work 13 or 14 hours on Election Day. They needed to have a personal schedule that allowed that; not many people do.”
In her earlier years with county government, she remembers needing seven workers each for polling place around the county. Three would be precinct workers and four would be the official counting board that would count ballots and tabulate results after the polls closed.
Their tabulations and ballots, locked in numerous ballot boxes, would then be driven back to the county Auditor’s Office late in the evening.
“It took a lot of dedication (by poll workers) to work those long hours on that day; many came back year after year to serve and I could count on them. I’ve always appreciated their hard work and community spirit.”
Goodbye, polling place
Pettit said some local residents have lamented the loss of voting at polling places as an enjoyable community and social event.
During the 2007 process to consider implementing a vote-by-mail process, several citizens said they would miss going to the voting center and meeting friends, neighbors and acquaintances. They also would miss saying hello to longtime precinct poll workers.
Pettit believes voter participation in elections has gone up since vote-by-mail went countywide in 2008, but said it’s hard to quantify because turnout in the different types of elections varies.
A ballot-printing firm contracted by the county pre-sorts nearly 22,000 county ballots and delivers them to the post office, reducing mailing costs.
Because all completed ballots are returned to the Auditor’s Office on a regular basis from drop off points before Election Day, results usually are available earlier election night.
“It’s all about getting more voter participation and making the entire process more efficient,” Pettit said.