Postage paid: Election ballots won’t need stamps this year

The governor and the secretary of state have found a way to cover the cost statewide — in 2018, anyway.

OLYMPIA — Voters in Washington will be able to mail in their ballots without a stamp this year.

The state is going to pay the postage.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced Tuesday they have a way to cover the estimated $2 million cost of providing prepaid postage statewide for the primary and general elections.

The King County Council forced the conversation when it voted May 7 to provide postage-paid ballot return envelopes for its voters. Councilmembers were ready to act April 30 but waited a week to give Wyman time to approach Inslee about expanding the idea to every voter.

“When it comes to prepaid postage, I believe two components are necessary,” Wyman said on April 30. “One, that it be implemented statewide, and two, that it cover every election. We have to treat every voter in the state fairly and equally, and do everything we can to avoid confusing voters.”

She asked the governor to grant her the ability and resources to reimburse all 39 counties for return postage costs for the two elections. The tab is estimated to be about $1.8 million — $622,602 in the primary and $1,156,261 in the general election.

Even if he wanted to do so, Inslee couldn’t because there is less than a million dollars in the emergency fund under his control. For the past few days, representatives from the offices of Inslee and Wyman sought a solution.

The money comes from combining $600,000 of the governor’s funds with a matching contribution from Wyman’s office.

Because King County has already funded its 2018 ballot return envelopes, Inslee and Wyman will ask the 2019 Legislature for a one-time reimbursement for those expenses. Wyman’s office will administer the 2018 funding as a grant to all of the 38 counties that choose to provide prepaid ballot return postage to voters.

Tuesday’s announcement only applies to the 2018 election cycle. They said they hoped the Legislature would act in 2019 to ensure funding in the future.

Legislation for prepaid postage has been introduced in the Legislature each of the past two years but not received a vote in either the House or Senate.

Sens. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, have said they plan to try again in 2019.

“More voter participation makes for a stronger democracy … prepaid postage is one important way we can reduce barriers” Inslee said.

“This is about leveling the playing field and making elections equal for all citizens of Washington state,” Wyman said. “I want to thank the governor for his collaboration, and I look forward to working with him to get a bill passed in 2019 to make Washington the first state in America with permanent universal postage-paid voting by mail.”

What the state money will mean for Snohomish County is hard to say. It will help, but it is too early to know if it will cover all the costs, county auditor Carolyn Weikel said Tuesday.

“We really have no idea how many people will be returning their ballots,” she said.

It also will be interesting to see if the postage prepaid ballots will affect the number of voters who decide to use a ballot dropbox, Weikel said. Use of the dropboxes has been increasing as well as the number of boxes overall.

The Legislature approved several voter-related bills earlier this year, including automatic voter registration, Election Day registration and the Future Voter program for 16- and 17-year olds.

This year, 596 offices are up for election, including U.S. senator, all 10 of Washington’s congressional representatives, more than 120 seats in the Legislature.

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

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