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The way we vote

Sep 16, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Our all-mail do-over in county commission District 2 poses key questions for future

Fremont County voters now have learned the outcome of the unexpected and unprecedented special election to correct a balloting error in one of the Fremont County Commission elections.

This was a significant occasion in the history of our county's electoral process, which means it was a significant event for the county overall. It also provided a glimpse into a possible future for certain elections here.

Topping the list of significance was that the re-vote changed the outcome of the primary election. In Fremont County Commission District 2, incumbent Dennis Christensen won the Aug. 21 Republican primary over three challengers, with first-time candidate Larry Allen a close second. When the balloting mistake was discovered and a revote was ordered across the entire district with the field cut from four to two, Allen won the second time around. No Democrat is running, so Allen's primary win assures him of taking office in January.

In position 1-A on the significance meter was the all-mail nature of the second vote. Rather than set up polling places again, the Fremont County Clerk's office distributed ballots through the mail, and voters returned the ballots in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes they came in.

We know that "turnout," if it can truly be called that because the voting was by mail, was low for the re-vote, but it wasn't so low as to leave the vote open to charges that the winner had the support only of a dedicated fringe. Hundreds of votes were cast, and the turnout total was close enough to that of the primary that there can be no fair criticism based on legitimacy. Full-primary candidates have been nominated on lower turnouts than this.

Around the nation there often are calls for more elections to be held entirely by mail, and to stretch the voting out over a period of days, as happened this election.

It can save money, and supporters say it is good for voters who are shut-in, who will be traveling on election day, or who have difficulty getting off work to vote. The absentee ballot process already exists, of course, and many voters already use it simply for convenience.

A potential problem with all-mail voting is there can be late changes in circumstances, after votes have been cast, that could make a voter want to change his or her mind. That's possible in a single-day election too, but it's far more likely that a candidate will screw something up or that a drastic change of fortune tied to something else would occur over a period of a week than a single day. The truth is, some voters don't make up their minds until the last minute. Mail balloting makes the last minute come earlier.

On top of it all is the nature of the polling place itself. There is a real power in the sight of hundreds, or thousands, of voters streaming into a polling place to vote on election day. It is a civic power, and an emotional one. It can excite us. It can move us. It conveys the feeling that we all are participating in something important. It demonstrates unequivocally that our one vote, added to the votes of others, is decisive. It is the difference between watching the game-winning home run on television and being able to say "I was there."

To reduce voting to the same process of filling out a warranty card for a new blender or clipping a coupon for a discount on a roll of paper towels runs the risk of reducing the importance of the election itself, of reducing the sense that we are all in it together, of reducing the knowledge that voting really matters.

These are worthy topics of discussion and deliberation in Fremont County. However, our long history of outstanding voter participation in traditional elections is a signal that changing the way we vote ought to be a decision made not in the face of a crisis, as happened this year, but through the most careful and thoughtful of deliberations. It is too important to handle any other way.

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