Jul 222008
Authors: Seth Anthony

Did you know that there’s an election in just a few weeks? It’s OK if you didn’t, because you can safely skip it; there’s no way your vote could possibly matter.

The elections being held on Aug. 12 are the Democratic and Republican party primaries, to choose each party’s candidates for races from U.S. Senate down to county commissioner.

The reason your vote won’t matter is that none of the races are contested — there’s only one candidate for each position and there are no write-in lines. In short, the results of all 20 contests that Larimer County voters get to cast ballots in are already a foregone conclusion.

For all of this, Larimer County will still open multiple voting sites and early voting locations. All told, this will cost about $250,000, according to Scott Doyle, the Larimer County Clerk and Recorder, whose office will manage these non-elections. That’s money we could save by canceling these unnecessary events.

Canceling uncontested elections is actually fairly common in Colorado — it happens frequently in special districts and quite often in small municipalities. Funding party primaries where there is no competition, on the other hand, amounts to free publicity for those parties and their candidates.

We can do without these uncontested elections and save the taxpayers money, and we can put the savings to good use by making mail ballots and voter registration forms postage-paid.

Here’s the situation: About 30 percent of Colorado voters cast their election ballots by mail. For Fort Collins municipal elections, all balloting is done by mail. But even though the clerk’s office already pays for sending out ballots, it’s required that voters pay the postage themselves to send them back.

In the 19th century, when people were required to pay a fee in order to vote, it was called a poll tax and ruled to be unconstitutional. In the 21st century, where helping out everyone who wants to cast a vote is a nearly unquestioned social goal, why hasn’t Colorado taken this easy step?

Covering the return postage on a mail ballot isn’t at all unprecedented: Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada and West Virginia already do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even more cover the postage on their official voter registration forms, including the large states of California, New York and Texas.

But here in Colorado, it’s illegal for anyone except the voter to pay the postage on a mail ballot envelope. As a consequence, we’ve created yet another barrier to voting — the cost and hassle of finding the right stamp.

I know I’ve paid more than one bill late because I couldn’t find a stamp in time; consequently, I’ve switched all my bills to electronic payment and ballots are one of only a handful of items I have to find stamps for anymore. Businesses include postage-paid return envelopes to encourage responses; our government can learn from this example.The requirement that voters pay postage themselves is most likely to burden people like students, who move frequently and are often disorganized, as well as the elderly, disabled or housebound, who may not be able to get out to buy the right stamps in time.

In this era when we have deliberately chosen to facilitate participation in the democratic process through electronic voting machines, accommodations for those with disabilities and mail ballot elections, why do we retain this barrier to voting?

The cost of postage-paid mail ballots would be minimal compared to the savings we’d get from canceling the multitude of uncontested primaries held throughout the state of Colorado. In the high-turnout presidential election year of 2004, about 50,000 Larimer County residents voted by mail. Canceling the uncontested primaries this year could have paid the postage for their ballots 10 times over.

At present, Colorado paradoxically spends money on elections we don’t need while refusing to pay the small costs of increasing participation. We can do better — we can save money on elections while at the same time making it easier for everyone to vote. All it takes is a little political will from our legislators to make the necessary changes in state law.

Seth Anthony is a graduate student working towards his doctorate in chemistry. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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