Town Clerk Addresses Concerns Over Mail-In Ballots

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The May 16 General Election will be the Town of Payson's fifth all-mail ballot election. As Americans, our right to vote is a precious privilege and I'd like to take this opportunity to share some details about how the process works.

The Town first tried an all-mail ballot for a special election in 2003. Since one-third of our voters were voting early anyway, we thought this would increase our voter turnout. It did, from 38 percent to 60 percent, and the trend has continued during the past three years.

Prior to the 2003 implementation of all-mail ballots, voters who couldn't or didn't want to vote in person at a polling place on Election Day were given the option to vote early. As required by law, early voters were required to sign the outside of their ballots, which were then verified according to strict procedures by an appointed board. The names of those who voted early were written down on poll lists and then displayed in the early ballot area as well as at the polls.

The current all-mail balloting process is nearly identical to the one formerly used for early ballots. The election/tally board is made up of one inspector and two judges, per state law. These judges are from the general public and have experience with all-mail balloting. We also swear in an alternate inspector and two alternate judges, just like there were alternates for the polls.

Ballots are handled with stringent care and pass through a complex set of checks and balances between the town and the county. The ballots are sent to all registered voters from a secure contractor directly to voters' homes via the U.S. Postal Service.

Voters can either deliver his/her ballot in person at Town Hall or mail it to Town Hall. If mailed, the post office counts the ballots it handles and delivers them straight to a certified election worker at Town Hall.

Each ballot is date stamped, placed in a locked box and the signature is verified by the County Recorder's office. This assures that a voter can only vote once. The ballot envelopes are then transported in a locked box back to Town Hall where the election board inspector opens each ballot and places the envelopes signature side down in front of one judge and the ballots face down in front of another judge. No member of the election board views the ballot results. The ballots are then locked away pending tabulation the day before and of the election.

Next, the verified signature envelopes are put into alphabetical order. The inspector calls out the name from the envelope and each judge highlights the name on two separate poll lists. The envelopes are then locked away. By law, we compile a list of those who voted from the highlighted poll lists, which are cross-checked for verification. This voter list is a matter of public record. However, we cannot and do not give out any addresses, phone numbers or party affiliations. This list is limited to names only.

Our election procedures are pre-cleared by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and are similar to procedures used in other cities and towns. Most cities and towns in Arizona contract with their counties to conduct their elections. The Town of Payson has chosen to conduct its own elections but contracts with the Gila County Recorder for poll lists, rosters and signature verifications.

We contract with a reputable specialist, Election Operations Services, to provide tabulating equipment and oversight on the night of the election. EOS is used widely around the state. We have used EOS for tabulation of ballots for many years, including when we had polling places.

There are several reasons why we decided to go with all-mail balloting. Among them: It was becoming more and more difficult to find enough certified election workers. Some voters objected to polling places in churches. Handicapped accessible polling places in each precinct were getting harder to find and the Department of Justice conducts spot checks of polling places to ensure ADA compliance. The logistics and operation of polling places in four districts (eight precincts) was expensive. And, since Arizona passed Proposition 200 in 2004, voters are required to provide very specific identification at the polls or be turned away. These factors, combined with much-improved voter turn out, are persuasive reasons for using all-mail ballots.

Even so, the Town sought public input by publishing a survey after the first all-mail ballot. We printed survey forms in multiple issues of the Payson Roundup, made it available at Town Hall and on the Town Web site and promoted the questionnaire on local radio broadcasts. Despite these efforts, we received 19 responses. All but one was positive and the sole concern was that the signature is displayed on the outside of the envelope. This is a state requirement and is not at the Town's discretion to change. And, as previously mentioned, no election official ever views the signature and the contents of the ballot. Your privacy is protected.

Additionally, it may be comforting to realize that in every day life, our signatures are still the gold standard of personal identification. We sign letters, we sign petitions, we sign checks, we sign credit card receipts. A ballot is no different.

In fact, the all-mail system provides even more security to you, the voter, that no one is using your identity to vote fraudulently.

The Town Clerk, Chief Deputy Clerk, and two Deputy Clerks are all Certified Municipal Elections Officials. One Deputy Clerk is certified as a State Elections Official. All have been through the elections training for three consecutive years and have taken the required test. The Town Clerk is also certified as a Master Municipal Clerk, and Certified Public Manager. The Chief Deputy Clerk and three Deputy Clerks are all Certified Municipal Clerks. Three are in the rigorous process of obtaining Master Municipal Clerk certification.

Municipal Clerks are bound by a Code of Ethics, which we take very seriously. In closing, I'd like to share that code, which reads:

"Believing in freedom throughout the world allowing increased cooperation between Municipal Clerks and other officials, locally, nationally and internationally, I do hereby subscribe to the following principles and ethics which I affirm will govern my personal conduct as a Municipal Clerk:

"To uphold constitutional government and the laws of my community;

"To so conduct my public and private life as to be an example to my fellow citizens;

"To impart to my profession those standards of quality and integrity that the conduct of the affairs of my office shall be above reproach and merit public confidence in our community;

"To be ever mindful of my neutrality and impartiality, rendering equal service to all and to extend the same treatment I wish to receive myself;

"To record that which is true and preserve that which is entrusted to me as if it were my own; and

"To strive constantly to improve the administration of the affairs of my office consistent with applicable laws and through sound management practices to produce continued progress and so fulfill my responsibilities to my community and others.

"These things I, as a Municipal Clerk, do pledge to do in the interest and purposes for which our government has been established."

Conducting elections is only one of our responsibilities as municipal clerks. If you would like to know more about the election process or who we are and what we do, do not hesitate to call me at (928) 474-5242, ext. 240.

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