Ballots with insufficient postage will still be counted

(Herald illustration)

(Herald illustration)

EVERETT — A divided Snohomish County Council on Wednesday urged the county auditor to let voters know that their ballots will be counted this fall — whether or not they’re mailed with enough postage.

Decision 2016 is especially weighty in Snohomish County. Ballots packed full of citizen initiatives and federal, state and local contests will be larger and heavier than usual. As a result, they’ll require 68 cents in postage. That’s 21 cents more than a first-class stamp, currently 47 cents.

Historically in Washington, the U.S. Postal Service has delivered ballots, including those with insufficient postage, to county election offices.

Because many voters don’t know that, County Councilman Hans Dunshee led the effort to get County Auditor Carolyn Weikel to advertise the fact more widely.

“Voting in a free country ought to be free,” Dunshee said.

A resolution drafted by Dunshee asks Weikel to put a statement on the auditor’s website stating that the office will accept ballots received with inadequate postage. It passed 3-2, with Councilmen Ken Klein and Terry Ryan opposed.

Klein argued strenuously against the move. In a near-worst-case scenario, it would cost $225,000 for the Nov. 8 election if 80 percent of voters mailed in their ballots with no postage at all. The cost would continue into the future with each subsequent election. While it might be reasonable to have the state pick up the tab, he said it shouldn’t be the county’s responsibility.

“At the time we’re cutting back essential services, this is not the time to be doing this,” Klein said.

Dunshee criticized Klein for setting up “a false choice between (sheriff’s) deputies and voting.”

“I think you’re smart enough to figure this out,” he told Klein.

Councilwoman Stephanie Wright supported Dunshee’s move as “voter outreach.”

“We’re just publicizing what is already current practice,” she said.

Wright pointed out that the ballot includes several proposed changes to Snohomish County’s charter. It makes sense, she reasoned, for the county to pick up the cost of voters making decisions about how to run county government.

Ryan, in explaining his no vote, said he might be able to support the idea after a more thoughtful discussion. He’d like to have a better understanding of the budget impacts and how any extra costs would be covered.

Ballots are set to be mailed to voters Oct. 20. They must be mailed back or deposited in a drop box by 8 p.m. on election night. There are a dozen stationary drop boxes throughout the county, as well as a van that will accept ballots at designated places and times in the days leading up to the election.

Weikel, who oversees the county’s Elections Division, didn’t attend Wednesday’s hearing. She said Dunshee informed her Monday about the action he intended to take.

“He basically told me, ‘I will do this’, ” she said.

What the council passed doesn’t alter what her office has been and will be doing to make sure voters are aware of the need for extra postage and the availability of drop boxes. About half the ballots are expected to arrive by mail and the other half via postage-free drop boxes, she said.

“My communication plan is to inform the public that the county auditor accepts and processes all ballots it receives,” she said.

She explained that if a ballot arrives with insufficient postage, county taxpayers cover the difference. It comes out of an account her office uses for various mailing-related charges.

Dunshee said he decided to craft the motion after voters mentioned the postage issue to him as he campaigned. The Democrat from Snohomish is running this fall to retain his appointed seat representing the council’s District 5. His opponent is Sam Low, a Republican who is president of the Lake Stevens City Council.

Low jumped into the political fray Wednesday with a statement that took a jab at Dunshee and the other council members who voted for his motion.

“I am strongly in favor of allowing as many possible voters to vote in our elections,” he said. “With our county facing a $6 million deficit, today’s vote is another irresponsible waste of county resources.”

The situation in Snohomish County is an element of a larger issue getting debated in the race for Secretary of state.

Democratic candidate Tina Podlodowski and incumbent Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman each say they embrace the idea of pre-paid postage on ballots. This would mean using state funds to cover the tab for postage on ballots in primary and general elections.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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