The Billings Outpost

Voting by mail growing increasingly popular

HELENA HANDBAG

Cathy Siegner

I just returned from a visit to my hometown of Portland, where they have their own TV show (the ever-quirky “Portlandia”), amazingly verdant lawns and gardens (they get plenty of rain), and more tasty and interesting food (and drink) than one person would ever have time to sample. A frequently seen bumper sticker there exhorts: “Keep Portland Weird.” Another proclaims: “Keep Portland Beered.”

Oregon is also politically quirky in some ways, and I’m not just talking about physician-assisted suicide, although it was the first state to allow the practice (albeit with lots of stringent regulations attached).

Oregonians passed an initiative in 1988 establishing a mail-in-only ballot, which seems to be working well. Election expenses are reportedly down there, plus election officials have more time to count the votes.

Most important, there haven’t been any allegations of election fraud, and “turnout” so far has been relatively high. 

In the 2012 general election, for example, 81 percent of the total ballots mailed out to registered Oregon voters were marked and returned, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s website. In Montana, the comparable figure for that year was 72.18 percent, according to the Montana Secretary of State’s website.

Washington has allowed statewide elections by mail since 1993, and local governments there have been authorized to hold mail-ballot elections since 1987. The Washington Legislature adopted a law in 2011 requiring all 39 counties in the state to conduct vote-by-mail elections.

Montana could have joined “Cascadia” in allowing completely vote-by-mail elections, but the 2011 Legislature decided against it. A 2011 story in Governing magazine (“Why Hasn’t Voting by Mail Spread?”) states that a “plan to make the switch died early in the legislative session when 15 House members reversed their votes and killed the bill.”

The article goes on: “The promise of saving $2 million each election cycle by eliminating polling places and poll workers — while also enhancing voter protection and participation — could not overcome a flurry of last-minute calls from constituents expressing to legislators their concerns about security.”

What possible objections could there be to voting by mail only? Some folks like the tradition of going down to the polling place, marking their ballot, and putting it into the box. Others worry that, with mail-only ballots, fewer people will actually take the trouble to get their ballot, sit down and mark it, and then drop it off at the election office by hand or mail it back in time to be counted.

There’s also a partisan tinge to arguments against mail-only ballots, which might help to explain why Oregon voters had to resort to an initiative process to translate the mail-only election proposal into law.

Phil Kiesling, director of the Center for Public Service at the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University (and a former Oregon Secretary of State), attributes this to political cowardice and calculation and the “craven fear of politicians that has been demonstrated on both sides of the aisle that this is bad for their side.”

VA scandal

Things are finally coming home to roost with the Veterans Administration, which has been limiting or delaying care for untold numbers of U.S. veterans suffering health problems stemming from their involvement with various wars and conflicts. News that systematic delays in delivering care at a VA medical clinic in Phoenix may have led to otherwise preventable deaths has already led to a high-ranking agency resignation, and other heads may roll.

President Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki were reportedly “madder than hell” about reports stemming from a whistle-blowing doctor that VA staff in Phoenix were told to keep veterans on a secret waiting list for months to meet waiting time goals and that at least 40 people may have died in the meantime. Similar cover-ups were alleged to be occurring at other VA facilities around the country, and Shinseki has ordered a “face-to-face audit” of all VA medical clinics.

Compounding the problem is that nobody really knows how many veterans we have. The U.S. Census Bureau hasn’t done a nationwide count since 2000. The VA only does “official estimates and projections” using a mathematical model. My guess is the agency probably doesn’t want to know how many veterans there are because then it might actually have to do something about caring for them and that would be very expensive.

According to 2012 Census estimates, Montana has the second-highest number of veterans per capita (Alaska takes the top honors in that particular category). The estimates put the total U.S. veteran population at about 21.2 million (with 26.6 percent having a disability) and include the following percentage breakdown by the war or conflict period in which these folks served: Vietnam era (34.9 percent); Gulf War 1990-2001 (17.1 percent); Gulf War 2001 or later (12.9 percent); Korean War (10.9 percent), and World War II (7.5 percent).

College costs

The cost of attending college at Montana State University and the University of Montana has risen 55 percent over the past 10 years. That’s according to a recent analysis of the affordability of attending one of those four-institutions, including both tuition and fees. The report also notes that tuition at public universities in other states has gone up 200 percent during that same time period.

The analysis, done by Tyler Trevor of the Commissioner of Higher Education’s office, shows that tuition and fees have gone up a bit less at MSU Billings, Montana Tech in Butte, Western in Dillon and MSU-Northern in Havre (42 percent during the past 10 years) and about 35 percent at the state’s two-year community colleges.

Eighty-four percent of the students entering the Montana University System for the first time as full-time residents receive some type of financial aid, the report notes, and 58 percent of those are borrowing an annual average of $5,579 to attend. By the time a student gets a bachelor’s degree, he or she is carrying an average of $26,440 in student loan debt.

Members of the State Board of Regents are scheduled to discuss this affordability report on Thursday when they meet at MSU Northern in Havre.

Quote of the week

“The time is now. The place is Phoenix, Arizona, where a message needs to be sent loud and clear to VA administrators and bureaucrats alike that the murder of our veterans for cash bonuses and career advancement will no longer be tolerated.”

— Dr. Samuel Foote, former director of the VA clinic in Phoenix, in a letter to the VA Office of the Inspector General last December about alleged waiting-list manipulation.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 23:09

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