OLYMPIA — In the stack of bills awaiting Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature is what one supporter described as the “most progressive democracy measure” emerging from the Legislature this year.
This legislation would require at least 250 more ballot drop boxes be installed around the state. Voter turnout will presumably rise when more people in little towns and big cities get better access to a metal enclosure where they can return their ballots postage free.
Democrats are happy as they view higher turnout as a prerequisite for winning elections. They calculate this looming change could help solidify their party’s influence in urban areas, where more Democrats reside, as well as its grip on the governor’s mansion, which has been under Democrat control since the 1980s. A coalition of progressive groups and statewide labor unions wrote Inslee to urge the governor to sign Senate Bill 5472.
How ironic then that the bill’s sponsor is a conservative Republican senator who was one of the state’s first lawmakers to get on the political train carrying Donald Trump to the White House.
Sen. Kirk Pearson, of Monroe, doesn’t view his bill as fomenting progressivism. Never has. For him it’s always been about giving his constituents in Granite Falls and other out-of-the-way communities in the state an easier way to return their ballots.
“I just wanted better access to everybody,” he said Tuesday, recalling a time when every precinct had a polling place. “I do not think it will favor one party over another. Everybody wins.”
The bill, which Inslee is expected to sign soon, requires at least one ballot drop box for every 15,000 registered voters in a county and a minimum of one box in each city, town, and census-designated place with a post office. It works out to at least 250 additional drop boxes in Washington.
Snohomish County, which has 12 permanent drop boxes and roughly 455,000 registered voters, will need to install 20 more.
It means Sultan, Granite Falls, Gold Bar, Startup, Darrington, Index, Mountlake Terrace, Mill Creek, Brier and Woodway are getting at least one drop box for certain. A couple more could be added in Everett, Marysville and Lynnwood to help meet the 1 per 15,000 registered voters mandate.
King County elections officials estimate 41 to 43 new boxes are required to comply. There are 18 communities in line to get their first, including Mercer Island, Medina, Kenmore, Woodinville, Tukwila, North Bend and Skykomish.
Where to put the other 25 is to be determined. Certainly Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Kent and Federal Way are possibilities given their number of registered voters. It is awfully hard to imagine Seattle not getting a couple more, too, an outcome one must presume favors Democratic candidates.
Pearson’s bill takes effect 90 days after its signing. That means many new boxes should be in place for this fall’s election, with all of them in place by next year’s contests for legislative and federal offices, and statewide initiatives.
It’s not possible to predict whether any party will benefit more. But considering the political math involved it’s easy to see why some Democratic interests are salivating.
In the town of Index, 101 of the 114 registered voters cast ballots in the presidential election. If having a box would have increased turnout by 5 percent it would have meant another six votes cast. In Skykomish, 99 of its 133 registered voters cast ballots last fall without a box. Put one in, boost participation and the total would climb 7 votes.
In Granite Falls, 1,307 of its 1,919 registered voters took part in November with a majority backing Trump. Add 5 percent, you’d have had another 96 votes cast with more than half going for the president. Three communities, three boxes and maybe 110 additional votes in a presidential election, assuming a good increase in voter turnout.
Now, what about Seattle, where there were 460,927 registered voters in November with most voting against Trump, for Inslee and for Sound Transit 3. If adding one box magically increased turnout in the city by 5 percent, another 23,046 ballots would have been cast.
To their credit, Pearson and Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, argued for democracy, not Democrats, in their April 7 letter to Inslee urging him to sign the bill.
“Elections are one of the most important things we do in government,” they wrote. “In order to show our voters that their elected officials care about their vote, we need to make it easy for them to cast one.”