The King County Council voted Monday to approve $381,000 to fund prepaid ballot postage for elections.
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 beauty of this is now there will be a dropbox at the end of every driveway,” said County Councilor Dave Upthegrove during discussion of the bill, noting that existing dropboxes across the county are expensive to operate and staff. “If you’re concerned about the security of your mailbox, you can drop your ballot in any of the blue mailboxes.”
King County Elections Director Julie Wise formally requested the funding for postage last month. “When I was elected, one of my commitments was to remove barriers to voting,” said Wise in a statement at the time. “As we increase access with prepaid postage and ballot drop boxes, we’re beginning to see a real impact.”
“I think the barrier is not just the cost,” said Upthegrove during the council meeting. “I think the barrier is a logistical one.”
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 bears similarity to poll taxes of yesteryear, designed specifically to keep marginalized communities from voting.
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.
Ballots that do get forwarded along without a stamp, according to King County, get billed to the county at $1.70 a piece—significantly more than the county would have to spend just paying for the postage in the first place.
To further complicate matters: Some counties have required two stamps and while most require one, adding another logistical layer to getting that ballot in.
Although there’s already inconsistency around counties as to the cost of sending in a ballot, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman raised concerns—both to the County Council and the governor’s office—that the measure could provide “enhanced access” to the ballot. In response, she requested $2 million in emergency funding last week for prepaid postage statewide.
Funding for statewide postage-paid ballots has come up in many previous sessions of the Washington State Legislature, but so far has failed to gain traction. This past session, a house bill died in committee.