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Want to save money and boost voter turnout? Get rid of Election Day!

City Councilman Steve Leal thinks it's time for a new experiment in city politics: Election Month.

Leal, who was sworn in for his fifth term representing southside Ward 5 earlier this week, is putting the idea of having an all-mail election up for discussion on the agenda next month.

Leal says mailing a ballot to every registered voter, while keeping a limited number of poll sites open on Election Day, would save money and boost turnout, judging from the experience of other jurisdictions.

"It just seemed like we should take a really hard look at doing this," Leal says. "It would make it more user-friendly and save money at the same time."

Less than one in four registered voters cast a ballot in last month's city election, with just under half of them--some 29,911--voting early. City Clerk Kathy Detrick, who oversees the city's elections, says she's still crunching numbers for a presentation on election costs for the council, but she's sure it would be more cost-effective to have an all-mail ballot.

She also agrees with Leal's prediction that turnout would likely increase.

"If you're going to run an election, you want people to vote," says Detrick, who was disappointed by last month's low turnout. "It's like throwing a party, and nobody came."

The idea of an all-mail ballot is appealing to local election officials. Although she doesn't handle city of Tucson elections, Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez has noticed increased turnout in the all-mail elections she's overseen for the towns of Oro Valley and Sahuarita. She'd like to do an all-mail election for the county, but state law doesn't allow it.

"People are working two jobs, trying to shuffle kids around, and they like the thought of voting by mail," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says that as candidates, political parties and special-interest groups increasingly push early voting, the strain is growing on her office. In last year's presidential election, 173,103 people voted early--about 47 percent of the total cast. County workers had to process each of those requests, deciphering sometimes-illegible handwriting, checking signatures against county records, and taking phone and Internet requests. Rodriguez estimates that on average, the task took somewhere around 10 minutes per ballot, which meant staff was working long hours seven days a week to get all the early ballots into the mail.

In an all-mail system, Rodriguez would program a computer to print a ballot for every voter, and her staff could get them into the mail in about two weeks.

The other problem: It's becoming increasingly difficult to find convenient polling places, as well as workers to staff them.

Rodriguez says she's inclined to support a newly launched statewide initiative, Your Right to Vote, which would mandate an all-mail voting system in Arizona, although a handful of polling places would remain open on Election Day.

The man behind the petition drive is Rick Murphy, a former congressional candidate who owns a chain of radio stations in Northern Arizona. Murphy is bankrolling the effort to collect at least 122,612 valid signatures to put the question before voters next November.

Fred Taylor, state director of Your Right to Vote, says the Arizona effort is based on the way elections are handled in Oregon, where all voters have been voting by mail since 1999.

"They've had excellent results," says Taylor. "It's increased the number of participants across the board. It's been a good, sound, reliable system that's saved the state of Oregon $2 million a year."

An all-mail ballot would essentially eliminate the new Prop 200 requirement that voters show identification before casting votes at polling places.

The idea of all-mail voting has its critics, including Secretary of State Jan Brewer, who says going to the polls on Election Day is an important tradition.

EXPLORER political columnist Emil Franzi, who hosts radio talk-show Inside Track weekend mornings on KJLL-AM 1330, warns that voting by mail is an invitation to increased fraud.

If Franzi had his way, he'd scrap early voting altogether.

"I would go back to if you ain't sick, go to your (expletive deleted) polling place," Franzi says. "If you're too big a couch potato to vote, then I don't want your (expletive deleted) vote in there anyway."

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