Editorial: State should pay postage of returned ballots

The governor and Legislature need to provide the same access that King County just gave its voters.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The governor and the Legislature may not have needed the nudge, but they got it Monday from the King County Council, and both should now act to deliver the same access to postage-paid election ballots that King County voters will now be guaranteed.

The King County Council voted Monday to pay the postage for ballots for voters in King County and will spend an estimated $381,000 for the upcoming primary and general elections. The council delayed its vote a week after Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s chief election official, asked county officials to delay its action while she sought emergency funding from Gov. Jay Inslee to do the same for all of the state’s 4.2 million registered voters.

Wyman is asking the governor to approve up to $2 million in emergency funding that will reimburse all 39 counties for postage their election offices will pay to have ballots returned in the mail without requiring voters to affix stamps.

Wyman, who has previously recommended similar legislation, supports prepaid postage for ballots as one of several programs she has sought to promote increased voter turnout. But she asked for King County to wait out of concern for fairness for all voters in the state.

“When it comes to prepaid postage, I believe two components are necessary,” Wyman said in prepared testimony last week. “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.”

While King County’s registered voters account for 30 percent of the state’s total, easing election participation for one county still leaves the majority of voters without the same level of access. The problem would be compounded for those districts that cross King County’s border with Snohomish and other counties, including five legislative and two congressional districts.

Wyman also raised the issue that King County’s Seattle-based media concentration could add to confusion about who could mail ballots without adding stamps.

And while King County may be able to make the expenditure, other counties, including Snohomish, would find it difficult to fit prepaid ballot postage into their budgets.

Last week the governor’s office said Inslee was generally supportive of the proposal and would review Wyman’s request. The state expenditure is expected to total about $1.8 million, $622,000 for the primary and another $1.16 million for the general election. But the governor would have to make a decision soon as county election offices are preparing to have ballot envelopes printed in the next few weeks.

King County’s decision means that the governor needs to follow suit and extend the same access to all voters for this year’s elections. And the Legislature should do the same next session by making the change permanent to reimburse counties to provide postage-paid ballots to all voters for all elections in the state.

There already are plans to do so. State Sens. Joe Fain, R-Auburn and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, introduced legislation in 2017 and have said they will reintroduce a bill in 2019.

There’s some evidence that prepaid postage could encourage more voters to get their ballots in. King County tested postage-paid ballots in three special elections last year in Shoreline, Maple Valley and Vashon Island, The Seattle Times reported last week.Ballot returns increased 6 percentage points in two communities and 10 percentage points in a third.

Wyman, lawmakers and county election officials have worked to increase voter registration and participation in recent elections, especially increasing the number of ballot drop boxes in all counties, including 16 in Snohomish County as well as mobile ballot boxes.

Even in even-numbered years when there are more state and national races on the ballots, voter turnout in the state has been in a steady decline. About 79 percent of the state’s voters turnout out for the general election in 2016, but the following year only 37 percent returned ballots. In the most recent election in Snohomish County, for Sno-Isle Libraries levy request and two other districts, the ballot return rate didn’t crack 26 percent.

Ultimately, it’s up to voters to mark their ballots and get them in, either through the mail or a drop box. Saving voters the cost of a stamp or two will remove one more barrier for voters.

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