Elections don't run themselves

Oct 8, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Local elections suffer from an ailment that might be called "JHS." The initials stand for an officially unnamed but very real condition, which, if it did have a name, would be Just Happen Syndrome -- as in the average citizen probably assumes elections "just happen."

Actually, a reliable and well-run election requires proper funding, proper equipment, and good personnel. At the moment, Fremont County is suffering from a shortage of all three. That means that a fourth ingredient central to effective democratic government also is undermined: voting.

If Fremont County had an election time machine, it would turn back the clock 25 years, when our county had some of the best voter turnout in the nation, and before redistricting had removed much of the interest and most of the fun from our ballots.

The court challenges and threats which put an end to at-large voting for legislative and county commission seats deserves to be remembered as misguided and deeply harmful to local democracy. Addthe aforementioned nuts-and-bolts problems, and representative government as determined by local voters is taking some big hits.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese is battling the situation, but problems are mounting, compounded by funding shortages.

Once upon a time, in the middle of the 20th century, Fremont County had something like 70 voting precincts. The democratic election spirit ran high through the county, and dozens of fire stations, schools, churches, grange halls and similar buildings became polling places every election day, dotting the county landscape. Voting was about as convenient as it could get. Few voters had to go more than a mile or two to reach a polling place.

On the ballot in those days were candidates who required a countywide majority to win. From Boysen to Duncan (both long-lost voter precincts), voters cast ballots not only for their local boards and councils but also for all the legislators and county commissioners, too.

That was expensive. Today we have fewer than half so many precincts, and even fewer polling places. The majority of Fremont County's voters cast ballots at just three sites Fairgrounds in Riverton. Voters have to travel farther and, often, stand in line longer just to exercise their elective franchise. That discourages participation.

Clerk Freese also has been alerting the public to the evaporating supply of "election judges" for some years now. Election judges are the people who greet you at the polling place, check your registration, hand you the ballot, assist you in voting as needed, and take and record your ballot after you are finished.

This is an all-day job and then some for most election judges, and many who have been doing it for decades now either are retiring or planning to. There simply are not enough new election judges coming up through the system to maintain the network of polling places with the service voters expect and need.

There are technology issues as well. The old mechanical, lever-acton voting machines served reliably for a long time. But they were hard to haul back and forth from the polling places and, eventually they began to wear out and break down. They were replaced by gee-whiz ballots using a combination of pens, paper and electronics. Vote counting got much faster, but now we're already seeing a second generation of this voting technology begin to falter (the old gray machines lasted much longer).

But where is the money to replace the vote scanners? Where is money to recruit election judges and pay them more? Where is the money to keep smaller polling places open? State and county government is in a fiscal vice, and the squeeze is on. Last month the county clerk talked again about converting elections to mail-in ballots, or establishing so-called "voting centers," which are even more centralized polling places where any registered voter could vote, regardless of precinct -- provided that voter could get to the location.

In the not-to-distant past, such an idea would have been would've bordered on sacrilege. County voters cherished their local polling places and readily stepped up to staff and maintain them. Now, fewer and fewer people seem to give a damn. Called it JHS.

This is not a good cycle. At a time when fewer people vote, when there is less choice for voters on local ballots, and when issues of voter fraud and outside interference in elections are rising, making it harder for our elections office to secure the basic tools of elections is doubly dangerous.

Local and state government leaders are faced with some very difficult decisions as the energy economy continues to wheeze. But when our bedrock civic transaction -- the elections which put those leaders in place -- are suffering, underfunding them is a counterintuitive and counterproductive response.

Left untreated, Just Happen Syndrome is highly contagious.

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