State Senate OKs bill to add hundreds of ballot drop boxes

OLYMPIA — A Monroe lawmaker’s bill that could more than double the number of ballot drop boxes in Washington is on its way to the state House after sailing through the Senate.

On Monday, senators approved the legislation 49-0 with Republicans and Democrats predicting it will boost participation of voters by making it easier for them to return their ballots.

“This is really important for people in the rural areas,” said Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, the bill’s sponsor.

Many constituents in his 39th Legislative District must travel a long distance to find a box to return ballots postage-free, he said. Otherwise they need to use a stamp to mail in their ballots and that is like a poll tax, Pearson contended.

“It’s not right to make people pay to vote,” he said following the Senate action. “When you require people to put stamps on the ballot you’re discouraging people from voting.”

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said the bill will create uniformity in the availability of drop boxes in the state. By so doing, it will provide an avenue for more voters to avoid having to worry about a stamp, he said.

Senate Bill 5472 requires at least one ballot 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 in a county with a post office.

The Secretary of State’s Office estimates there are 324 permanent drop boxes in Washington and as many as 395 more would need to be added under the bill’s provisions. Of the additional boxes, 96 would be required in King County, the state’s most populous, according to the office’s estimates.

Snohomish County, which has 12 permanent drop boxes and roughly 455,000 registered voters, would need 19 additional boxes under the current language of the bill, according to elections manager Garth Fell.

That would mean putting them in Sultan, Granite Falls, Gold Bar, Startup, Darrington, Index, Mountlake Terrace, Mill Creek, Brier, Woodway and a couple more in larger cities such as Everett and Marysville.

Counties would bear the costs of acquiring and installing any new boxes. In Snohomish County, it works out to about $10,000 apiece, auditor Carolyn Weikel said Tuesday.

She said she does not have money in her budget to foot the bill and would need a special appropriation from the County Council.

And she expressed concern that auditors are expected to have the additional boxes in place for this year’s primary. She said she hopes lawmakers give them until the 2018 election cycle to comply.

“I’m disappointed that there’s no language to give us a reasonable amount of time to get them installed,” she said. “I couldn’t find 20 locations by August if I was out every day looking for locations. This could be very onerous on county auditors. I hope we can work together to make it less onerous.”

Most ballots are now returned via drop boxes.

In the presidential election, 1,934,136 ballots were returned by Washington voters through a drop box, according to figures compiled by the Secretary of State’s Office. That is 57.5 percent of the 3,363,440 ballots cast.

In Snohomish County, 233,853 ballots — 65 percent of those counted — came in via a drop box, accessible voting site or one of the mobile drop box vans deployed in the final days of the election.

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

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