EVERETT — Snohomish County is suing the state to recoup the tens of thousands of dollars it has spent complying with a law that requires placing more ballot drop boxes around the county.
So, too, are the other 39 counties in Washington.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the counties assert the 2017 law violated Washington’s unfunded mandate statute, which prohibits the state from requiring local governments provide a new or expanded service without giving them money to cover the cost.
“I am not opposed to the concept of drop boxes,” said Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel, who oversees elections. “From the beginning what I have been frustrated with is the Legislature dictating how many I need, where I need them and not providing the resources to pay to have them installed or maintained.”
Snohomish County, along with Kittitas and Whitman counties, are named plaintiffs in the suit.
The Washington State Association of Counties is the lead plaintiff. The association, which represents the state’s 39 counties, hired Pacifica Law Group, of Seattle, as chief counsel for the legal challenge.
The lawsuit centers on the 2017 law sponsored by former Republican state senator Kirk Pearson, of Monroe. It requires 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.
Counties have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars thus far in pursuit of compliance. While most of the expense has been on installing them, there are ongoing costs to maintain boxes and to pay employees to retrieve ballots from them each election.
The suit filed in King County Superior Court seeks to require the state “promptly reimburse all Washington counties for all reasonable costs incurred or to be incurred” from implementing the law, including annual operating costs.
Snohomish County spent $83,200 procuring and installing additional ballot boxes in 2017 and 2018. This year, the tab stood at $14,000 as of September, according to the suit. The county anticipates annual operating costs in excess of $58,000 in a typical non-presidential election year and $77,000 in a presidential election year.
Across the county, there are 23 drop boxes. That’s 11 more than when the state law took effect.
However, with 475,000 registered voters, Snohomish County must add boxes in Index, Silvana and seven other locations to be in full compliance. Even more might be needed if the number of registered voters climbs much higher.
Another concern raised in the suit is the financial burden created by the law’s insistence on having boxes in less populated communities where there’s been no expressed need.
”Indeed, many required boxes will be in close proximity, in low density areas,” the suit states. “For example, in Pierce County a box will be required in the towns of Carbonado, which has 407 registered voters, and in Wilkeson, which has 263 voters, and which are 2.6 miles apart.”
This legal challenge is not about the policy, stressed Eric Johnson, executive director of the association.
“Counties are committed to expanding access to voting, and we believe that the Legislature acted in good faith; however, they failed to acknowledge the actual cost of implementation,” he said. “We are asking the court to provide the financial relief needed to counties so that additional ballot drop boxes can be installed before the 2020 presidential election.”
Counties have been prepping for this fight for some time.
In early 2018, the association started amassing a $400,000 fund to lobby for changes in the law in the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions, and to sue if necessary. Johnson has said money from the fund should cover most of the legal bills though the participating counties could incur some expenses as they will have staff involved.
Snohomish County, meanwhile, submitted a claim for reimbursement to the state in December 2017, but it was rejected. In August, the county council unanimously approved a resolution to take part in a lawsuit.
“We wanted to make sure we gave the Legislature an opportunity to take action and that didn’t happen,” said Snohomish County Councilman Nate Nehring, who serves on the association board of directors.
Attempts to reach the Office of the Attorney General were unsuccessful Thursday. It was not known if state attorneys had received a copy of the complaint.