Are lawmakers ready to cover the tab for prepaid postage?

It will cost the state nearly $5 million so that voters can keep mailing in ballots without a stamp.

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are coming around to the notion of letting voters return their ballots by mail without putting a stamp on the envelope.

Now they need to decide if the state should pony up millions of dollars to cover those postage costs.

A bill making prepaid postage permanent roared through the Senate and, on Friday, passed unanimously out of the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations.

“I think this bill will increase voter turnout. I think this bill will reduce barriers,” Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said before the panel’s five Democratic and four Republican lawmakers voted.

Senate Bill 5063 requires ballot return envelopes for all elections to include prepaid postage. And the legislation requires the state to reimburse counties for the cost “subject to the availability of amounts appropriated.”

A fiscal analysis pegs the tab at $4.82 million in the next two-year budget. That would be enough to cover elections this fall and throughout 2020 including the presidential primary.

When majority Democrats in the House release their proposed two-year spending plan Monday, supporters of prepaid postage will be looking for those dollars.

“If the state is requiring mail-in ballots and if it is going to mandate to the counties how to run the elections, then the state has an obligation to pay for it,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who serves on the state government committee.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman very much wants prepaid postage made permanent.

“It would be a huge win for our voters,” she said Friday.

But she’s concerned the bill as written could let the state off the financial hook and leave counties with an unfunded mandate. While big counties could pay for it on their own, smaller ones might not, she said. Lawmakers need to be sure they come up with a statewide solution, she said.

“We have to treat every voter in the state fairly and equally, and do everything we can to avoid confusing voters,” she said.

Prepaid postage legislation has been discussed annually since the state moved to all-mail elections. Versions introduced in the past two sessions never received a vote in either the House or Senate. Wyman backed those efforts.

But when the King County Council moved in late April 2018 to pay the postage for all of its voters, the conversation in Olympia quickly changed.

Wyman, a Republican, asked Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee for help in finding the money so that every county could do what King County planned to do. She argued it would be unfair if only voters in the most populous county had the option.

A couple weeks later, Wyman and Inslee announced $2.1 million in grants to counties for use in the primary and general elections in 2018.

Snohomish County received $166,601 and spent $116,302.26 on returned postage for those two elections. Under its agreement with the state, the county can spend the remaining $50,299 on elections in 2019, according to Garth Fell, the county elections manager.

Voters are switching to use of the mailbox from use of a drop box in which ballots can also be placed without a stamp.

“We certainly saw a shift in behavior in 2018,” Wyman said.

In Snohomish County, for example, in the November 2018 election, 48.7 percent of the ballots cast were returned through the mail and 51.3 percent via drop boxes.

Two years earlier, for the presidential election and without free postage, only 35 percent sent back their ballots by mail and 65 percent through drop boxes.

In the county’s most recent election, 77 percent of ballots were returned through the mail.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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