ROCKVILLE — Rockville residents and area election officials had mostly positive things to say Monday as the Rockville City Council considered a proposal to ameliorate declining voter turnout in city elections by putting an end to in-person voting and implementing a vote-by-mail system for the city’s 2019 election, under which every registered voter in the City of Rockville would receive a ballot in the mail, which voters would return by Election Day.
“It’s an experience I mourn the loss of, if I go in this direction,” said Rockville resident and former mayoral candidate Drew Powell, who said he favors the change to vote by mail. “It doesn’t mean I’m against the initiative, it’s just something I will miss.”
The lone voice who spoke in opposition to the proposal was Rockville resident Brigitta Mulligan, who suggested that the proposal be put to a referendum rather than be decided on by the Council.
“[A referendum] would be something that would get people energized for voting,” said Mulligan, a former candidate for city office. “I don’t think Rockville is ready for this in the next election.”
Support for the proposal from outside Rockville came from City of Falls Church Director of Elections and General Registrar of Voters David Bjerke, whose enthusiasm for vote-by-mail inspired him to cross the Potomac to insist that Rockville implement a vote-by-mail system after his own study of the issue found a vote-by-mail system would not only increase voter turnout but would be more cost-effective than in-person voting.
You have the opportunity to be a leader in Maryland and on the East Coast of the United States that would be tremendous,” Bierke said, adding that while Virginia law would not allow Falls Church to implement such a system, polling showed that voters in Falls Church are in favor of it.
“I’ve polled my voters and they want this, but the Code of Virginia does not allow it,” he said.
Birke acknowledged that a vote-by-mail system is not without problems, but that it can be improved.
“Does it have problems? Sure, no system is perfect, but instead of having two systems that are imperfect, focus on one imperfect system and make that system better,” he said.
States that have implemented vote-by-mail include Oregon and Washington, along with several municipalities in California and Utah.
The Rockville vote-by-mail proposal came about after years of dwindling voter turnout. Only 19.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2007 election, with turnout falling even lower to 15.9 percent by 2015.
A study by Rockville Board of Elections Supervisors was inconclusive as to whether voting by mail would increase voter turnout in the City.