County plans to sue to recoup costs from ballot drop-box law

A quarter-million dollars could be spent adding 19 ballot boxes in rural areas.

EVERETT — Snohomish County is gearing up to sue the state of Washington to recoup costs to comply with a law that required placing more ballot drop boxes around the county.

It could be the first of many counties to take that step.

The election mandate is proving expensive, as officials here and elsewhere tried to warn state lawmakers.

Snohomish County expects to shell out a quarter-million dollars next year to install and operate 19 new ballot boxes. That includes more than $100,000 in staffing and other expenses. The state provided no funding.

“That’s the most significant part — it’s an ongoing cost,” county Auditor Carolyn Weikel said.

The law took effect July 23. It required at least one drop box for every 15,000 registered voters, with a minimum of one box in each city, town, and census-designated place with a post office. That includes unincorporated communities such as Startup and Silvana.

It was sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Pearson, a Monroe Republican who recently resigned to take a job in the federal government. Pearson said he wanted to make it easier for people to vote in rural areas. Civil rights groups, labor unions and progressive organizations also praised the idea.

Officials estimated it would cost more than $1 million to implement statewide, with annual costs of $257,000.

As a cheaper alternative, Weikel suggested allowing people to mail ballots postage-free.

Instead, the county has had to add five drop boxes during the second half of this year. That cost $35,000 for installation and another $1,500 for operations. The county had a dozen drop boxes before the law took effect.

“When we have drop boxes, we have to have them open for the election,” Weikel said.

That starts 19 days before election day, when ballots are mailed. The county needs to have people pick up those ballots regularly. They work in pairs, never alone, as a security measure required by state law. A team of two closes down each box at 8 p.m. on election night.

“We keep doing everything we can to encourage people to participate in the democratic process,” Weikel said.

A few new ballot boxes didn’t appear to boost turnout last month. Less than 33 percent of voters countywide returned ballots for the Nov. 7 election, the lowest-mark for an odd-year general election in almost a half century.

Granite Falls, which got one of the new ballot boxes, bucked the trend.

“Granite Falls saw an increase,” Weikel said. “They had been asking for one for a while and we were going to put one in anyway.”

The County Council on Wednesday authorized filing a damage claim against the state to recoup ballot-box costs. A claim is a potential precursor to a lawsuit. It’s likely to be filed this week, said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.

As of Friday, the state agency that handles risk management was unaware of any similar legal claims from other counties.

Additional ballot drop boxes are one of several unfunded state mandates that have county officials griping around the state.

“This is such a clear example,” said Josh Weiss, legislative director and general counsel for the Washington State Association of Counties. “This is perfectly fine public policy. Everybody agrees we’d like to increase voter turnout. But you can’t have something for nothing.”

A law on the books is supposed to prevent the state from mandating new programs or higher service levels without reimbursement. That’s one of the legal angles the counties will explore. Weiss said to expect a more coordinated response next year.

“We feel like our efforts to get the Legislature’s attention to address the counties’ funding problems have fallen on deaf ears,” Weiss said. “We’re continually having to reduce services at the county level and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

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

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