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Democracy By Mail


by Joel Smith & r & Glenn Armstrong started work at 11 am on Tuesday morning. Planting his feet in front of one of Spokane County's two vote-counting machines, in a tiny fluorescent-lit back room at the elections office, he began feeding stack after stack of ballots into the system and watching them shoot, tallied, out the other side. At 6 pm, he's still at it, like a robot, feeding one stack in, then another, opening the machine periodically to blast it with canned air, muttering things to his assistant, Bobbi Magallanes.

Would that the machines were as machine-like as Armstrong. They'd been humming since 9 that morning. Now every third or fourth series of ballots that whooshes out the far end of the machine comes out crumpled or folded. Armstrong tells Magallanes whether the ballots were counted before they jammed. She gathers them up, puts them in a deep cardboard box and says, "The machines are tired." Armstrong gives it another blast of canned air.

Shortly after 6 pm, the machines come to a stop. Armstrong and the other vote counters look relieved. Vicky Dalton looks tired. Outside, in the elections office's cavernous, high-ceilinged back room, amid a sea of silent vote tabulators, the county auditor sits alone at a table, fielding calls from the media and the public. An assistant rounds the corner to tell her that the Secretary of State's office just called, wanting to know who would succeed West if he's recalled. Dalton doesn't even try to mask her irritation. Odd inquiries from the media and public are one thing, she says, but when it's coming from other agencies, "I find that unacceptable."

She's irritated, she's getting sick and she's hounded constantly by TV news reporters trying to make sure they get their teaser in at the right time. But she sounds chipper. And she has reason to. Dalton has long pushed for vote-by-mail elections -- this is its first, and, she says, it's gone off without a hitch. Though turnout was slightly lower than she predicted, there had been no problems. What's more, the Spokane County Commissioners decided that afternoon, after an advisory vote from the people in November, that all future elections will be vote-by-mail. She's thrilled.

Veering into a small conference room, she points out the whiteboard on one wall. Scrawled in slightly cartoonish capital letters is "City of Spokane recall election of James E. West, mayor." Pretty high-tech stuff. "It keeps me from getting paper cuts when everybody tries to grab the papers from my hand," she says.

Two hours later, she strolls to the whiteboard, marker in hand, and makes history on live television.

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