New law to incite proliferation of ballot drop boxes

OLYMPIA — Snohomish County plans to increase the number of ballot drop boxes for the Aug. 1 primary, and beyond.

Auditor Carolyn Weikel said Tuesday she is looking to install two new permanent boxes and deploy four mobile units for the coming election, a first step toward complying with a new law aimed at getting more boxes added throughout the county and around the state.

The law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Kirk Pearson, of Monroe, requires at least one ballot drop box for every 15,000 registered voters in a county with a minimum of one box in each city, town, and census-designated place with a post office. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it Tuesday and it takes effect July 23.

Snohomish County, which has 12 permanent drop boxes and roughly 455,000 registered voters, will need to install 20 more, Weikel said. Statewide, at least 250 additional drop boxes will be required.

Brier, Darrington, Gold Bar, Granite Falls, Index, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Silvana, Startup, Sultan and Woodway are eventually supposed to get at least one drop box. Everett, Marysville and Lynnwood, three of the county’s most populous communities, are likely to get some of the other nine.

Specifically, Weikel wants to place permanent boxes in Granite Falls and Mountlake Terrace for the primary. But she must still find sites for each and then secure money to pay for installation, maintenance and eventually staffing.

And she said she already planned to send mobile ballot drop box units to different communities. They will be at the Darrington IGA and Sultan Red Apple markets July 31 and at Twin Lakes Park in Smokey Point and the Everett Mall on Aug. 1, which is Election Day.

“We will do our very best to get the drop boxes in place or located as soon as we can,” she said. “We will continue to work on installing boxes after the primary and before the general election.

“Our focus will be bringing additional boxes to South County, south Everett and somewhere off Highway 2 in Sultan or Gold Bar,” she said. “We also plan on continuing mobile ballot drop boxes for the general in areas where we do not have permanent boxes.”

There are two continuing challenges.

Lawmakers did not provide counties with money to pay for installation or the added costs of staffing required to check and empty boxes on a regular basis.

And finding locations where boxes can be permanently installed is not easy. Weikel said her staff is looking for potential sites and she’s open to suggestions from civic officials and people living in local communities as well.

These challenges aren’t unique to Snohomish County. Auditors around the state raised similar concerns in testimony at public hearings. Auditors, including Weikel, asked lawmakers to give counties until the 2018 election cycle to comply. That didn’t happen.

They requested enough money to fully cover the new expenses. Lawmakers responded with an offer to provide grants to smaller counties to defray some of the installation costs.

On Tuesday, Inslee called for more funding than that.

“I strongly encourage legislators to fund the installation and maintenance of these ballot boxes for the counties in the budget,” he said.

Pearson did not attend Tuesday’s bill signing.

From the outset, he said the intent of the bill is to make it easier for people in rural areas to vote by ensuring they didn’t need to travel extended distances to find a drop box. Another reason is Pearson dislikes the all-mail ballot system and the requirement for a stamp to mail in ballots.

“We should be making it easier for the citizens of Washington state to vote, not harder,” Pearson has said. “It’s only fair that every citizen should have an opportunity to drop their ballot off rather than mail it in.”

Civil rights groups, labor unions and progressive organizations praised the law and their leaders said they hoped it would result in greater participation of younger and minority voters.

“The freedom to vote is the foundation of our democracy, it’s the armor that protects representative government, and so it’s an issue that all of Washington’s elected leaders should collaborate on,” says Washington Voting Justice Coalition leader Cara Bilodeau, “It’s encouraging to see results.”

Weikel suggested lawmakers seriously consider postage-free voting for all.

“Most registered voters do have a mailbox where they could put their voted ballot and if the state paid for the postage then all voters would have equal access to returning their ballot,” she said.

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

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