Ballot box bill elicits censure

Election officials statewide are pushing back against Democratic lawmakers who want ballot drop boxes placed on college campuses to boost voting by students.

They say a bill requiring county auditors to install at least one box on the grounds of community and technical colleges, branch campuses and universities is costly and provides special treatment to one group of voters.

Auditors say they, too, want more students participating in elections but dictating where boxes are sited will not deliver the desired results in every part of the state.

“Local county auditors are in the very best position to make decisions about how and where to expand drop boxes,” Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson told the Senate Committee on Governmental Operations Thursday in a hearing on House Bill 1290.

Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the bill’s prime sponsor, told senators she is trying to replicate the experience of Central Washington University where students paid for a drop box and saw interest in the elections grow as result.

“This seemed like a great way to engage young voters,” she said. “There is something they like about drop boxes.”

Three college students — one from Central Washington and two from the University of Washington in Seattle — spoke in favor of the bill. They said if a drop box is on campus, students will be more likely to cast a ballot.

The House passed the bill on a 53-44 vote earlier this month. Snohomish County’s delegation split along party lines with nine Democrats favoring it and five Republicans opposed.

Its fate in the Senate is uncertain as Republicans on the committee questioned the reasoning for the bill Thursday.

“How much easier do we have to make it,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “Having a drop box does not translate to more engagement in the process.”

Increasing numbers of Washington voters are choosing to put ballots in the secure drop boxes rather than mail them in, said David Ammons, communications director for Secretary of State Kim Wyman. In some counties, almost half the ballots are now handled that way.

Wyman isn’t taking a position on this bill but supports making more boxes available around the state.

“It’s become more popular than some people envisioned,” Ammons said. “We’d like to make it convenient and secure for everybody.”

Today, there are 11 ballot drop boxes scattered around Snohomish County. Under this bill, at least two more would be needed — one at Everett Community College and another at Edmonds Community College.

Each would cost $5,000 to buy and install, according to Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel. During an election, two staff members will be required to check and empty them on a regular basis, which adds up to about $800 per box, she said.

The bill does encourage colleges or their student associations to pick up part of the tab for installation. It also calls for the county and colleges to form a committee to develop a plan to promote student voting.

Auditors also must tell the secretary of state how many drop boxes are in their respective county and where they are located. Once collected, the information will be put on the secretary’s website.

Weikel said she wants all the data to be pulled together first before lawmakers start picking locations for them.

“The auditors are in favor of drop boxes and would like a best practices study done before mandating where boxes must be placed,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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