At least for this year, postage will be paid by the state for mail-in ballots for the upcoming elections in August and November. (Andy Bronson/Herald file photo)

At least for this year, postage will be paid by the state for mail-in ballots for the upcoming elections in August and November. (Andy Bronson/Herald file photo)

Editorial: Postage paid for now, but let’s make it stick

Except for King County, which will pay for its voters, the state will pay ballot postage this year.

By The Herald Editorial Board

You can skip the stamp for ballots for the Aug. 7 primary and Nov. 6 general elections.

The state will pick up the tab for postage in order to remove that barrier — which some had criticized as a poll tax, albeit a small one — for the return of election ballots in Washington state, one of three states that conduct their elections nearly exclusively by mail-in ballots.

At the request of Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Gov. Jay Inslee announced about $1.2 million in funding will be used to reimburse the election offices in 38 of the state’s 39 counties, allowing voters to send their ballots through the mail without postage.

But who’s the odd county out? And why?

King County, which voted just last week to spend an estimated $381,000 to pay the postage for voters in its county, won’t be reimbursed by the state, at least initially. That has some King County officials casting a vote of disapproval for the actions of the Democratic governor and the Republican secretary of state, including that county’s Elections Director Julie Wise, who told The Seattle Times, the move was “grossly unfair.”

In a release announcing the move, Inslee’s office explained that rather than using emergency funds to pay for up to $2 million in postage reimbursement for all counties, Inslee and Wyman found $600,000 each in savings from unfilled positions and other existing funds in their respective offices. That’s expected to be enough, when added to the $381,000 that King County had already authorized for its voters’ ballots, to cover the remaining 2018 elections statewide.

And King County may eventually be reimbursed. Inslee and Wyman said they will ask the Legislature next year to make a one-year reimbursement to the state’s most populous county and home to about 30 percent of the state’s voters.

Just to get us warmed up for the August primary, let’s take a quick poll:

Raise your hand if you agree with King County that it’s unfair that it may not see reimbursement for the postage it spends on returned ballots. Its county council, after all, deserves some credit for prompting Inslee and Wyman to dig under the couch cushions to pay the postage for all voters in the state.

Now raise your hand if you think King County might have saved itself $381,000 if the council had waited — as Wyman had requested prior to its May 7 vote — to see if she and the governor could find the funding.

Thank you; you can put your hands down now.

The week before the council’s vote, Wyman requested it wait because she didn’t want to see a situation where King County voters had the advantage of free postage while the rest of the state did not. Very few counties, some facing budget cuts to their election offices, would not have been able to afford the same move.

Another complication — one affecting Snohomish County voters — would have occurred because at least two congressional and five legislative districts’ cross King County boundaries. Without providing postage to all voters, King County voters would have had an advantage in those races.

Wyman stressed that pre-paid postage for ballots has two requirements: One that it apply to all voters statewide; and two, that it cover every election.

The King County Council waited a week, then went ahead in a 7-2 vote. Its council gets credit for setting the agenda, and even getting the ball rolling, but it did so with a familiar disregard for its decision’s effects on other counties.

At the same time, action next year by the state Legislature is almost mandatory now.

Having allowed voters to return their ballots without postage for the next two elections, it risks confusing some voters if that isn’t made the case for all elections in following years. The result could be hundreds to thousands of ballots mailed without postage. As is its policy, the U.S. Postal Service will deliver ballots whether they have postage or not, but it sends the bill for unpaid postage to individual county election offices.

If the state does take on responsibility for paying ballot postage, lawmakers also should reconsider their mandate for counties to increase the number of ballot boxes in communities. The ballot boxes have been seeing increased use, but if virtually every mailbox becomes a ballot box, then counties should be permitted to avoid that additional expense.

Some may wonder why all the fuss over a postage stamp or two. Granted, the price of a Forever stamp is nothing compared to the unmeasurable value in the right to vote. Most of us, fortunately, can easily afford the postage or can make the effort to find a ballot box. But for others, whether its a matter of cost or convenience, there is no good reason to deny them that right.

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