Drop box use surged amid fears of Postal Service reliability

Three of four ballots were returned via a drop box in the presidential election, up almost 44% from 2016.

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OLYMPIA — An electorate excited to participate and concerned with the reliability of the Postal Service fueled a huge surge in the use of drop boxes for the November presidential election.

Across the state, a whopping 72.5% of ballots were returned through county-designated drop boxes, up from 57% in the 2016 election, according to data compiled by the Secretary of State’s Office.

Snohomish County collected 75% of ballots from its 30 boxes, an improvement over the last presidential contest, when 65% used them.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman attributed the increased usage in part to people simply wanting to vote early. Typically, about half the ballots arrive by election week. But this year was unprecedented, with roughly 80% coming in early, she said.

Also, Wyman said, a “constant drumbeat” concerning the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver ballots on time likely stirred some voters to change their habits.

Over the course of months, President Donald Trump repeatedly tweeted baseless allegations that widespread vote-by-mail would lead to a fraudulent election. And Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit to prevent proposed operational changes at the Postal Service, which he said threatened critical mail delivery in this state and others.

Meanwhile, a preference for drop boxes may be a reason why far fewer ballots got tossed this election for arriving too late.

Overall, only 2,486 ballots of the 4,158,350 received did not get counted because they had a late postmark. That’s down from 4,650 in 2016, when almost 800,000 fewer ballots got turned in.

In Snohomish County, 595 got tossed in 2016 and only 287 failed to arrive in time this election — even as nearly 100,000 more ballots were processed.

“We saw a significant increase in the number of registered voters,” Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said. “What I think was impressive was the early turnout, which demonstrated voters were committed to participating in this election.”

As drop boxes gain in popularity, there’s a new concern about unsanctioned ballot collection containers popping up on street corners, as occurred in some California communities.

For a brief period in October, the California Republican Party set up unauthorized drop boxes, noting that that state’s laws didn’t bar an organization from collecting ballots and delivering them to election offices. It later removed the containers.

State Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, has drafted Senate Bill 5015, which would make it a gross misdemeanor to misrepresent “an unofficial ballot collection site or device as an official ballot drop box” set up by a county.

“This is just to say, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’” Hunt said. “We’ve got folks who can do drop boxes. I don’t want to put my ballot in a Democratic Party drop box or a Republican Party drop box.”

Wyman, a Republican, said she hoped the bill would spark a broader discussion of ballot collection.

“We’re seeing people do it. It’s probably a good time to have that discussion,” she said, adding that she is “as concerned about ballot collection as I am voter fraud.”

In the meantime, there’s no evidence of pervasive fraud alleged publicly by Loren Culp, a Republican, who lost his bid for governor in November. Culp sued the Secretary of State’s office on Dec. 14, alleging illegal votes were cast.

That’s not to say some voters didn’t do things wrong, or that some errors didn’t occur.

In Kittitas County, for example, a voter returned two ballots — their original one and a replacement one. According to information provided to the state, the voter did so out of concern that the original would not be received in time to be counted. Turned out the ballots arrived the same day and got processed at the same time by two separate workers. As a result, both ballots got counted.

In Pierce County, a father voted his ballot and his son’s, who has the same name. The son wound up voting a provisional ballot, which was accepted, and the other ballot not tallied.

“This election seems to be following the historic trend. Was it perfect? No. Was (fraud) rampant? No,” Wyman said.

Snohomish County is checking roughly a dozen names of people who died before Election Day and reportedly voted.

If a person receives and casts a ballot before passing, the ballot gets counted. If the county finds a person died before they would have received and voted their ballot, the information would be forwarded to the county prosecutor for potential follow-up investigation and action, Fell said.

“We look for something that shows that the person turning in the ballot was eligible to vote,” he said. “We don’t jump to conclusions whether something is fraud or not.”

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

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