Community Voices / Election reforms are key to restoring public confidence

A return to in-person voting is key to ensuring confidence in election results, says state Sen. Doug Ericksen, who plans to introduce legislation to that effect next session. Above, a county van tends to a ballot dropbox in Bellingham during the 2020 general election. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

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By Sen. Doug Ericksen, 42nd Legislative District

— Where this year’s election is concerned, there is one point on which I think everyone would agree. It was a mess.

Vote counts in other states descended into chaos as they attempted to implement all-mail voting for the first time. The fairest and most even-handed thing we can say is that doubt will linger for years to come. And it’s not the first time. Many who are telling us today that it is improper to raise questions about the last national election spent the last four years challenging the legitimacy of the previous one. As a policymaker, I think we need to rise above this level — and consider what the critics of the left and right have really been telling us.

If we continue down this course, we can expect increasing public disillusionment with our elections processes, our government and political institutions. The fabric of our nation is at stake. Restoring public confidence in elections is a concern for every one of us, regardless of party.

The lesson of this year’s election is that the safest and most secure way to conduct an election is with in-person voting, with valid ID required, with absentee ballots available on request, on a yearly basis.

The least-secure way to do it, the system most vulnerable to fraud, is all-mail voting. That’s what we’ve been using in this state since 2011.

That is why I am introducing legislation for the 2021 legislative session to restore basic security measures to the voting process in Washington state. First and foremost, let’s bring back the voting booth.

When it comes to vote-by mail, we must ask a fundamental question — how do we know who actually voted the ballot? In a vote-by-mail system, there is no way to know. Most people are honest and vote in a legal fashion. But a safe and secure system must take into account the possibility of fraud, and we need to protect ourselves against the bad actors who would undermine the result.

I’m not saying there was fraud in Washington state. But the way our system is set up makes it all but impossible to detect it and prevent it. Our Secretary of State, Kim Wyman is bound by the laws passed by the Legislature and she has done a good job under those constraints. Unfortunately, the disquieting reports we heard from other states this year about problems with ballot delivery and vote counts ought to show us that we are vulnerable, too.

What we need is a system that guarantees the public can have confidence in our elections. Under my proposal, the Free and Fair Elections Act of 2021:

  • We restore precinct-by-precinct voting on election day, just as we used to do it.
  • We expand opportunities for in-person voting, by requiring counties to open one or more polling stations two weeks before an election, and making general-election day a state holiday.
  • If you like your by-mail ballot, you can keep it. Absentee ballots would still be available upon annual request.
  • Valid ID would be required when casting a ballot or requesting an absentee ballot.
  • Absentee ballots would have to be received by the day of the election.
  • “Ballot harvesting” — third-party efforts to collect and deliver ballots — would become a felony.
  • Voting machines would have to establish a “paper trail” that can be checked in the event of a recount.
  • School-levy and non-emergency bond measures would appear on the primary or general-election ballot, rather than in low-turnout special elections.

For too long, we’ve been trying to lower the bar on elections security in order to expand participation. This has come back to bite us, as we have seen with this current national furor. Nothing is safer than having poll workers check to make sure that every person who casts a ballot has the right to do so, and making sure ballots are collected securely, guarded and maintained. In a time when internet breaches are front-page headlines and security is a top concern, I think we need to give the same attention to the most fundamental civic institution of all. 

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