Maximillian Roberts watches as Angel Green take a selfie before dropping off her ballot in November 2016 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Maximillian Roberts watches as Angel Green take a selfie before dropping off her ballot in November 2016 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Pay up or else! County could sue over ballot drop boxes

Washington state required counties to install the drop boxes, but hasn’t provided any reimbursement.

EVERETT — They gladly took steps to make it easier to vote.

But Snohomish County leaders are growing impatient over Washington state’s refusal, so far, to pay for all the ballot drop boxes they’ve had to install. They’ve been waiting for reimbursement two years and counting.

Last week, county leaders decided to take the issue to court. And they’ll be teaming up with other counties facing the same frustrations. Officials in eastern Washington’s Whitman County also have signaled they’re prepared to sue.

“It is a very clear case in my mind of an unfunded mandate,” said Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel, who oversees local elections. “It’s not that we don’t want to put in drop boxes. I think drop boxes are going to become more relevant in the future — but they cost money.”

The County Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday to authorize litigation to recoup the money spent complying with the state ballot drop-box requirement.

The Washington State Association of Counties is preparing to coordinate the effort as a co-plaintiff. Pacifica Law Group, of Seattle, has been hired by the association to guide the legal challenge, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the association.

Attorneys for Snohomish and Whitman counties and the firm are working out final details on when and where to file the case, Johnson said.

“I would assume it would be fairly soon,” he said.

The looming legal fight centers on a 2017 law requiring at least one drop box for every 15,000 registered voters in a county and a minimum of one box in each city, town, and census-designated place with a post office.

Counties contend the law violates Washington’s unfunded mandates statute which prohibits the state from requiring local governments to provide a new or expanded service without providing the money to cover the cost.

“The question is not about the policy. This is good policy,” Johnson said. “The question is who should pay for this policy. We don’t think it’s a question. It is a statutory requirement of the state.”

Snohomish County Councilman Nate Nehring, a board member with the association of counties, said unfunded mandates are an obstacle to carrying out core duties such as paying for police protection, running elections and maintaining roads.

“It becomes increasingly hard to provide local services when we’re burdened by unfunded mandates from the state,” Nehring said. “Even if it’s a good bill, state law requires that they don’t just pass the tab on to the county.”

Counties have been prepping for this fight for months.

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. Money from the fund should cover most of the legal bills, but Johnson said Snohomish and Whitman counties could incur some expenses as they will have staff involved.

Snohomish County’s costs for drop boxes was nearly $30,000 in 2017 and $58,000 last year, elections manager Garth Fell said. The figures cover installation as well as expenses tied to having workers drive out to collect ballots during election season.

This year’s tab isn’t known yet.

As of now, there are 19 drop boxes around the county, with the addition of new sites at Everett Community College and in Gold Bar. The auditor’s office is looking to install a 20th at a location to be determined. About a dozen existed before the state handed down the mandate.

Starting this year, voters can mail their ballots to the auditor without postage for free delivery.

That’s convenient for voters who get their ballots in early, but it may not ensure a timely postmark if they’re sent close to election day.

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

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