Guest Commentary

What are the real motivations behind the City Council's vote-by-mail move?

Voting has always been considered a cornerstone of our democratic processes. It is how we keep our government officials in line, hiring or firing them as we see fit.

As voters, we must always look closely at government officials who endeavor to change the process by which we hire and fire them.

Democratic Tucson City Councilman Richard Fimbres brought up the idea of making November's city election a vote-by-mail affair at a City Council meeting in March. The public hearing was held at the council meeting on April 5, and the council voted 5-2 to make November's election vote by mail.

The city charter does allow for the designation of any election to be a "mail ballot election." However, the questions that immediately come to mind are, "Why?" and, "Why now?"

Councilmembers Fimbres and Regina Romero spoke of saving money and increasing voter participation as compelling reasons for mail ballots, and they point out a national trend toward mail ballots; Oregon has been using mail-only balloting since voters approved a citizens' initiative in 1998. I don't argue that there is a trend; I am happy to stipulate that the rise of mail ballots is a national problem. Regarding voter participation and supposed cost savings, they are more wishful thinking than fact.

Research performed in California, and sponsored by the Pew Center on the States, shows that the introduction of mail-ballot-only systems actually reduces participation by 13.2 percent overall, while reducing participation of urban, Asian and Hispanic voters 50, 30.3 and 27.3 percent, respectively. It also shows a 5.99 percent participation advantage for Democrats over Republicans.

Research done at the University of Oregon contradicts these findings, but the data were derived from survey responses, not by tracking individual voters through four cycles, as the California study did.

Anyway, I am not the only one who believes that the act of voting should not be equivalent to the act of paying your sewer bill. Voting is something for which you should take time. It is serious. Right now, "early" or "absentee" ballots may be requested from the city clerk by people who may not be able to go to polling places. The change to all-mail ballots seems to make a difference only for those who are not serious about elections.

This is better?

There are some good arguments for cost savings, though much of what is saved on poll workers is spent on additional printing and postage. Though this November's election will be a mail-ballot vote in Tucson, by law, the city must still provide at least one polling place per ward, and the city will also provide drop-off facilities for those who prefer hand-delivery to mailing the ballot. The duty of ensuring accurate elections is probably not the first place to turn for cutting fiscal corners.

So, what's the real story? If the Democrats believe in mail ballots, why don't they go for a charter change instead of this one-time deal? Well? Republican Steve Kozachik, with a second from Democrat Paul Cunningham, made a motion to put the idea on the November ballot so the people could decide whether or not to change the way we hire officials. It was voted down by the rest of the officials.

The answers to, "Why" and, "Why now?" may be one and the same. In the last City Council election, the Democrats lost Ward 6 to Republican Kozachik, and came within a couple of hundred votes of losing Ward 3 to Republican Ben Buehler-Garcia. Those results, and current national trends, must have Democrats squirming in their chairs. Something must be done to influence the outcome of the election this go-round, and what better way to do that than with mail-in ballots? We all learned in grade school about "chain of custody" of ballots, whether they were machine ballots or paper cards, which prevent any hanky-panky. There is no chain of custody with mail ballots.

I'm not accusing Democrats of conspiring to commit voter fraud. I'm just trying to come up with a believable explanation for this one-shot mail-in deal, and the rejection of the more reasonable referendum suggestion. Any ideas?

About The Author

Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman moved to Tucson from Connecticut in 1977 and never looked back. He attended the UA, ran for City Council Ward III in 2001, and made regular contributions to the Guest Commentary section of the Tucson Weekly for over five years. He helped launch the Southern Arizona News Examiner. He is a former...
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