Kevin Duncan puts his ballot in the ballot drop box outside of the Arlington Library in February 2020. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

Kevin Duncan puts his ballot in the ballot drop box outside of the Arlington Library in February 2020. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

High court: State must pay for some, not all, ballot boxes

Snohomish County sued to recoup the cost of adding 21 ballot drop boxes to comply with a 2017 law.

OLYMPIA — Snohomish County sued the state to recoup all the money it spent complying with a law requiring counties put in more ballot drop boxes.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled that 2017 law was not an unfunded mandate, thus the state is only obligated to pay a portion of the tab for Snohomish and the other 38 counties.

Justices rejected the counties’ assertion that because the state demanded that drop boxes be installed, it was required to provide money to cover the cost.

Instead, justices sided with state attorneys, who argued a separate law dealing with apportioning of election costs took precedent. That one dictates the state must pay its proportional share of expenses associated with an election.

“The Counties’ claim of entitlement to full reimbursement pursuant to the unfunded mandate statute is best described as a mere expectation,” Justice Mary Yu wrote for the majority.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2019, centers on a 2017 law requiring counties to 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.

In October 2020, a King County Superior Court judge ruled the law violated Washington’s unfunded mandate statute, which prohibits the state from requiring local governments to provide new or expanded service without giving them money to cover the cost. Judge Nelson Lee ordered the state to fully reimburse counties for expenses they incurred.

Thursday’s ruling overturns that decision.

When the suit was filed, Snohomish County had spent roughly $100,000 on new boxes. That total is up to $260,000. The county now has 33 drop boxes, 21 of which have been bought and installed since the law took effect.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court to sort out what the state owes each county.

Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell said Thursday the county always supported the expansion of ballot drop boxes and, when the law passed, proactively invested to add more “because we recognized the benefit to our voters.”

“Now that the case has been remanded back to the lower court, once we have a final outcome in the case, we will determine how we will recover the capital and maintenance costs,” Fell said in an email.

The Washington State Association of Counties was the lead plaintiff, along with Snohomish County.

Eric Johnson, executive director of the association, said Thursday they were “deciphering the decision” but it’s clear the state “does have to pay their portion of costs.”

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

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