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King County Elections pushes for pre-paid ballot postage

King County Elections director Julie Wise hopes to boost voter turnout

Voters dropping ballots off in 2009.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Washington State went all vote-by-mail in 2011—following a move made by King County a couple of years earlier—but we still have some issues to work out with the system. The biggest one: whether or not the post office is obligated to deliver your ballot sans postage. The King County Council will be deciding soon whether to take that out of the equation entirely by spotting postage out of the county budget.

“When I was elected, one of my commitments was to remove barriers to voting,” said King County Elections Director Julie Wise in a statement. “As we increase access with prepaid postage and ballot drop boxes, we’re beginning to see a real impact.”

A stamp is just 49 cents, but, as King County Elections determined with an experiment last year, ditching the need for a stamp does a lot to boost turnout. Just under 9,000 Vashon Island voters received prepaid postage for a special school board election. Voter turnout rose to 52 percent. Statewide, turnout for February 2018 special elections was around 32 percent.

It’s also a matter of principle: As many (recently rounded up by Hanna Brooks Olsen for the South Seattle Emerald) have pointed out, requiring postage to be paid to mail in a ballot is eerily similar to poll taxes of yesteryear, designed specifically to keep marginalized communities from voting and ultimately declared unconstitutional.

The official word from the Secretary of State and from the post office is that no postage is needed to mail a ballot in any Washington State county—it’s just requested. In practice, though, it’s kind of at the whim of whoever’s working at the post office that day. In 2012, mailing a King County ballot in worked for Goldy at The Stranger, but in 2016, it did not work for Snohomish County Councilor Hans Dunshee.

To further complicate matters: Some counties require two stamps and some require one, adding another logistical layer to getting that ballot in.

Wise, along with King County Executive Dow Constantine, formally requested $381,000 from the County Council to provide prepaid postage for 2018 elections, although only $191,000 would have to come from the county’s general fund.

The county would only be on the hook for ballots sent by mail—not those dropped off at a dropbox.