Pierce County polls will remain open in 2010 under a budget provision approved by the County Council this week.
Now the county auditor’s office has to find the money to make it happen.
The council Tuesday approved a measure that sets aside $150,000 of the auditor’s budget to maintain poll voting next year. The provision also prohibits the auditor from decreasing the number of polling places (it currently has 56 traditional polling locations).
But the council did not restore the $150,000 to pay for poll voting that County Executive Pat McCarthy recently removed from the auditor’s 2010 budget.
“We couldn’t find the money,” said council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham. “We think that can be absorbed within the auditor’s budget.”
The council’s move means Pierce County will remain the only one in the state that still permits some voters to cast their ballots at the polls. Other state residents – and most in Pierce County – cast their ballots by mail.
About 10 percent of voters – or less than 18,000 – cast their votes at the polls in the general election earlier this month, according to a tally earlier this week.
The survival of poll voting here has at times been in doubt. Earlier this year the Legislature considered – but did not pass – a law that would have forced Pierce County to conduct elections exclusively by absentee ballot.
Auditor Jan Shabro in May asked the council permission to close the polls temporarily to save money. And McCarthy – who closed dozens of polling places during her tenure as auditor – stripped $150,000 for poll voting from her proposed 2010 budget.
McCarthy said she could not justify keeping the polls open at a time when the county must cut spending on law enforcement and other services.
But the council has repeatedly stated its intention to keep the polls open.
“I think good government always tries to protect the rights of the minority,” Bush said. “In this case, while it’s a minority of the voters who vote by polls, it is a big part of their involvement in civic affairs.”
Still, the council didn’t restore McCarthy’s funding cut for the polls. Now the auditor’s office must find the money to keep the polls open.
Shabro may already have found it. She said the office has saved money from an employee’s departure and from hiring fewer extra workers at election time that can be used to pay for poll voting.
It will be up to Julie Anderson – who defeated Shabro in this month’s race for auditor – to implement the council’s direction.
“I’m surprised that the County Council, which has been very supportive of poll voting, has basically defunded poll voting,” Anderson said.
Anderson criticized the council for unveiling the provision late Tuesday following a meeting recess and shortly before the budget was approved. And she expressed surprise the council can “prescribe how an executive office directly elected by the people will run elections.”
Bush said there’s no reason anyone should be surprised because the council has been consistent in its support for the polls.
“A segment of the population says, we want poll voting,” he said. “We have heard that and said we should accommodate that.”