King County adopts prepaid ballot postage

Designed to improve voter turnout, the measure was approved in time for the 2018 midterm elections.

By the time the 2018 August primary election rolls around, King County residents will no longer have to buy stamps in order to mail-in their ballots.

An ordinance funding prepaid postage for ballots in advance of the midterm elections was passed overwhelmingly by the King County Council on May 7. The legislation allocates $381,000 for the King County Department of Elections to get the new system set up in time.

Voters will be able to either drop their ballots in any regular mailbox without a stamp or deposit them in one of the 56 ballot-drop boxes scattered throughout the region. (Currently, ballots mailed without postage may or may not make it to King County Elections since some post offices won’t send along ballots that don’t have a stamp.)

“The beauty of this is that there will now be a drop box at the end of every driveway,” said King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, co-sponsor of the legislation, at the May 7 vote. “We’ll have drop boxes everywhere.”

Seeking a way to improve voter turnout and remove barriers to voting, King County has been experimenting with providing prepaid ballot postage in certain jurisdictions since last year. The county elections department orchestrated prepaid ballot postage pilot projects in special elections in Shoreline and Maple Valley in February 2017 and Vashon Island in May 2017. According to the county, turnout increased in comparison to previous special elections by 3 percent in Maple Valley, 10 percent in Shoreline, and, in Vashon Island, turnout in 2017 was 6 points higher than expected.

“We saw voter behavior change,” said King County Elections Director Julie Wise of the pilot projects during public comment prior to the May 7 vote.

In March 2018, Wise requested funding to apply prepaid postage to ballots across King County. The legislation was introduced in early April and moved to a full council vote last week. However, at the request of King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a final vote on the ordinance was held for a week so that councilmembers could take more time to consider the legislation.

In the end, Dunn still had reservations about the ordinance and voted against it along with King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, stating that prepaid ballot postage is a low priority compared to King County’s ongoing $25 million budget deficit. “We ought to resist the urge that government solve all of our problems. I wouldn’t put this very high on the scale of stuff that we need to get to,” he said at the May 7 vote.

Councilmember Lambert voiced similar concerns and argued that the county should wait for the Legislature to adopt a statewide prepaid postage program for the sake of uniformity. “This is an expense that other counties can’t really afford,” she said. “I think doing this now alienates our friends in the other counties.”

The editorial board of the Union Bulletin in Walla-Walla published an editorial on April 3 calling for adoption of the policy statewide, arguing that King County’s prepaid postage ordinance would increase the county’s already considerable political clout in statewide elections. “The playing field — especially for elections — must be a level one,” they wrote.

Over the last several years, state lawmakers have pushed legislation to establish statewide prepaid postage with no success. Last week, Sens. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, announced that they would try to get a paid postage bill passed during the 2019 session.

Lawmakers did, however, pass a bill during the 2018 legislative session that requires counties to install and operate more drop boxes. The bill did not provide funding for the expansion.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman testified before the King County Council last week to ask them to delay the vote, arguing that they should hold off while she requested $2 million in emergency funding from Governor Jay Inslee to fund prepaid ballot postage statewide in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.

Tara Lee, an Inslee spokesperson, wrote in an email on May 4 that while Inslee supports the proposal, that emergency funds are limited. “We don’t have $2 million in emergency funding available, and so the governor’s staff is looking into what options might be available for covering costs,” she wrote.

The King County Councilmembers that supported the ordinance were eager for the county to strike out on its own. “Let’s set the standard now for the other counties and not be held back,” said Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer at the May 7 vote.

“We did the test, we had two pilots projects, we got the kinks out, it’s time to move forward,” Councilmember Upthegrove said.

“For a democracy and a civil society to work, elections have to be accessible to all people. And stamps are a real barrier now, particularly for young people and particularly for those who are extremely poor and who have chaos in their lives … this breaks down that barrier,” he added.

Wise, the county elections director, told Sound Publishing on May 1 that the private vendor that the county contracts with to print their ballots agreed to make accomodations for delayed vote and the changes to the ballot envelope design that the ordinance will require.

jkelety@soundpublishing.com

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