The Death of the Polling Place

I took my girlfriend to vote today. The polling place was almost empty. Then I went to vote in another precinct. It too was almost empty. When I put my ballot into the machine, a Diebold Accuvote, the register counted only 118 votes by noon.

Of course many voters are choosing the convenience of voting by mail. It’s easier. It’s convenient. Who cares if it’s secure or accurate? Americans are more than willing to sacrifice Democracy on the altar of convenience. Heck, half the country doesn’t even vote anyway… so the death of the polling place and the end of the secret ballot is the all-too-predictable result. But it is sad to watch. The old folks that typically staff the polling sites are still there, the voters have simply disappeared. And soon the poll sites will disappear as well.

In King County, WA, the county executive Ron Sims has been pushing hard to move the entire region to Vote By Mail (VBM), or forced absentee voting. Our Secretary of State, Sam Reed, is also a staunch supporter of Vote By Mail systems. And the King County Council this spring voted 5 Democrats to 4 Republicans to close most of the polling places in the county. King County, one of very largest counties in the country, is a bell weather for what is to come. All around the country “no-excuse” absentee ballot use is on the rise, as those we elected to safeguard democracy are slowly and steadily dismanteling the traditional safeguards instead.

2006 is sure to be a watershed year for vote by mail problems around the country. Why just across the water from the City of Shoreline where I sit writing, the Eastside’s Congressional Race, Burner versus Reichert, is tied 49% to 49% going to the polls. So we may get a first hand example of just how long elections will drag out when absentee ballot use is high, and the race is too close to call. It wouldn’t be the first time King County’s Election Department  caught national attention. It probably will not be the last.

But the real scope of the problem forced vote by mail systems present didn’t quite strick me until today. I was standing around waiting for my girlfriend to finish voting when I saw King County’s official list of poll sites. The list is the size of a standard rock concert poster with a tiny type font listing a thousand or more poll sites. Browsing that list helped me understand the size and extent of the civic institution called the polling place. It’s a big part of our Democracy with tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers. But if the Ron Sims and Sam Reeds of the world have their way, next year those old people won’t have but one or two polling sites to staff, and in a few short years, the system by which we count votes in this country will have passed away.

Standing there today it was sad to watch, this death of the polling place. From touchscreen voting machines to vote by mail schemes, I can hear the death rattle in the lungs of Democracy. The fight now is is more like CPR, it’s too late for excercise and good diet.

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