The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

July 20, 2011

School-tax issue rejected, but vote by mail lauded

CHEROKEE, Kan. — In Southeast Kansas, the outcome of a mail-in vote that concluded Tuesday was not what Southeast School District administrators had hoped, but the unique method of voting drew a higher-than-usual turnout and cut election costs by half.

That further tipped the scales in favor of pursuing it as a permanent voting method, an idea Crawford County Clerk Don Pyle has been weighing for awhile.

The question on the ballot asked voters to give the USD 247 Board of Education the authority to increase the district’s mill levy by 1.88 mills, from the current 47.785 mills, if necessary. If the board chose to do so, the gain for the struggling district would have been $54,000 annually. The issue, according to a district administrator, would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $22 per year in school taxes had it passed.

VOTE TALLY

But voters rejected the measure, with 541 voting “no” and 374 voting “yes.” That’s a turnout of a little more than a third of voters, or 33.7 percent of the 2,716 ballots mailed out by the Crawford County clerk’s office.

“In my experience, on a single-issue question like this, we usually will have about 10 to 20 percent turnout,” Pyle said. “So this is actually a lot more participation than we would have gotten from a traditional polling place election.”

The election also was significantly less costly, requiring less human resources and equipment and no rental of polling places, he said.

The final cost — about $4,000, compared with $8,000 for a typical polling place election — will be borne by the school district. That cost includes postage, envelopes, ballots, the cost to publicize the election in legal advertising and printed instruction sheets to insert with each ballot.

“We didn’t have to hire any additional help, didn’t have to schedule 120 poll workers and have training, didn’t have to spend two days setting up polling places with equipment and renting them, which is costly,” Pyle said. “I had my mom come in to help open envelopes, but I’m taking her out to lunch as payment.”

None of the county’s some $200,000 in equipment, which costs about $20,000 annually to maintain, was used except two small scanners that Pyle said “are reliable when it comes to ballots that might be folded or slightly bent.”

The 915 ballots that came to the clerk’s office by noon Tuesday were counted in a matter of a few hours.

“I kind of pooh-poohed a lot of the folks from rural counties who spoke up for this at conferences, but I’m now seeing how much easier it is to run, and how much better it is for voters,” Pyle said.

STATE OFFICE DIVISION

In Kansas, counties may submit a request to Elections and Legislative Matters division of the Secretary of State’s office, which can then approve or reject holding a postal vote.

A spokesman with that division, Bryan Caskey, said the method could be used in certain circumstances such as single questions, but not in candidate races.

“It has been used several times in counties both rural and metro, really fairly diverse,” he said. Among them, Johnson County has held several in recent years, including a bond issue in the Spring Hill school district in June, which passed.

Pyle, who is chairman of the Legislative Committee of the Clerk’s Association, said rural county clerks belonging to the association have been pushing for making it a more permanent option for about three years.

“We’re looking at it pretty hard,” he said. “We’ve looked at the legislation, the statutes, have talked to folks in places that do it to see what they like and what they don’t like. It’s certainly much more cost efficient in this area, with smaller counties that maybe only have 1,000 registered voters, than setting up polling places and voters spending the cost of gas to get there.”

Pyle admitted that for such a method to work, there are security issues to consider.

“We have to check signatures, verify the address on the envelope,” he said. “This time we had about 60 ballots sent in that people didn’t follow the instructions on, didn’t sign, and we had to call them. A few came in and took care of it, but several didn’t want to make the drive to Girard. We just had to toss those ballots.”

Pyle said he doesn’t expect change to occur overnight, “but in the next few years, now that we’ve done it, I’m a lot more comfortable with it and it really is a lot easier to work, so I would push for it.”

“I think ultimately it gives us a better idea of what the public actually feels on an issue, you’ll get more people to voice their opinion, and it helps us as a county run much more efficiently.”

Other states

Only three other states offer postal voting: Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

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