Kevin Duncan puts his ballot in the ballot drop box outside of the Arlington Library on Feb. 11 in Arlington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kevin Duncan puts his ballot in the ballot drop box outside of the Arlington Library on Feb. 11 in Arlington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

More than half of county ballots arrived via drop boxes

More than 56% of voters used a drop box this August. The county auditor expects more use this fall.

EVERETT — When the dust settled from the Aug. 4 primary election, candidates advancing and 50-year highs in voter turnout weren’t the only notable results. Ballots poured into Snohomish County drop boxes at a rate not seen in any other primary election on record.

Of the more than 267,000 ballots cast earlier this month, the 53.8% turnout was the best primary count since a 56.4% mark in 1964. Close to 56%, more than 149,000 ballots, were returned through one of the county’s 30 drop boxes.

Operated since 2009, the county drop boxes have become commonplace in Washington’s vote-by-mail system. Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said the boxes generally receive anywhere from 40% to 60% of returned ballots, but larger usage trends are more difficult to establish.

“It seems to ebb and flow with the election,” Fell said.

In groups of two for safety and security, staffers pick up the ballots on a regular basis. In a presidential election year, Fell is anticipating deploying staff for collection more frequently. On election night, Fell’s office sends a pair of workers to close each of the 30 boxes at 8 p.m. and collect the votes.

The process has become more costly as the number of drop boxes in the county has nearly doubled since 2017 legislation mandated counties provide at least one drop box for every 15,000 registered voters and a minimum of one box in each city, town and census-designated place with a post office. The law came with no funding and no timeline for implementation.

After adding seven drop boxes in 2020, Fell said the county is in compliance with the latter half of the ruling, but is still a few boxes short of the one box per 15,000 voter requirement. He said the county spent roughly $150,000 to $175,000 on the installation and operation of the additional boxes.

Late last year, Snohomish County, along with Washington’s 39 other counties, filed a lawsuit to recoup funds spent complying with the law.

According to Fell, in addition to adhering to the 2017 legislation, the county gears drop box placement toward high-density areas to reach as many voters as possible.

“Between the required locations and the criteria that we use, I think we have a nice mix to allow all voters in the county convenient access to a drop box,” Fell said.

A drop box near the post office in Mill Creek garnered the most returned ballots this August with nearly 17,000.

The pair of boxes in Lynnwood provide a notable contrast as the site near City Hall had close to 15,000 ballots returned, while a location near the Ash Way Park and Ride collected just over 400.

Rural cities like Index and Startup gained boxes as a result of the 2017 law. Less than 100 ballots were submitted through the Startup drop box this August and Index’s box had less than 125 ballots returned.

Despite calls from national leadership questioning the safety of vote-by-mail and the return process, Fell said security measures are in place at all stages of the process.

“We’ve got a long history of this being successful in Washington state, so I am not concerned about the drop boxes, I am not concerned about the mail, both options are perfectly safe,” he said.

Drop boxes have measures in place to detect any foul play and have held up to accidental bumps, collisions and scrapes with cars, Fell said. If anyone observes unusual activity around a drop box, Fell asked that they let the auditor’s office know.

He encouraged voters worried about the security of their ballot to visit votewa.gov to confirm it has been received, but asked voters to be patient and allow three to five days for the ballot to be processed and the information uploaded.

Ahead of the general election, Fell advised voting early to avoid lines at drop boxes, to give the auditor’s office time to resolve any potential issues with a ballot and to be counted in election night results.

In the August election, more than 57% of ballots in drop boxes were returned on Election Day.

No matter how you choose to cast your ballot in November, Fell said voters should have confidence in the process in place and know that all ballots ultimately end up in the same place.

“Once (a ballot) is received — whether it comes from a drop box or the mail — everything is co-mingled,” Fell said. “Once we uploaded them to our system to say they have been received, there is no difference in process, they are all handled the same, the only distinction is how did they get to our office.”

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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