Washington state votes exclusively with mail-in ballots. This means that all voting districts should give voters the same level of help getting ballots turned in.
That is why we welcomed the talks under way between Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman to find ways the state can cover costs of return-postage for ballots cast in all 39 counties during the 2018 primary and general elections.
The King County Council forced the issue early this week by voting to pay for return postage on ballots in the 2018 primary and general elections. Two pilot elections showed that prepaid ballots boosted turnout.
Wyman, a Republican, favors prepaid postage. But she said the King County action means that voters in that influential county may have an easier time returning ballots than voters in other parts of the state – all because poorer counties can’t cover postage costs.
In Thurston County, three-quarters of ballots are put into more than two dozen drop boxes, but local Auditor Mary Hall says prepaid ballot postage could boost overall voter turnout here by potentially 5 percent (in line with what she said was seen in two King County pilot projects).
Voters in King County make up almost a third of the state’s electorate, so it’s far from a moot point if prepaid postage boosts turnout only for King County voters.
Some legislative and congressional district boundaries cross multiple counties including King. This is particularly noticeable in the 8th Congressional District, which overlaps King County and a few Eastern Washington counties that can’t easily pay for postage.
When it became clear King County was going to move ahead alone with prepaid postage, Wyman asked Inslee, a Democrat, to help out. She asked for authority to spend funds helping the other counties or to tap emergency funds.
But the full cost to cover prepaid ballot postage for all counties is about $1.8 million, far more than Inslee has in his discretionary fund, which is actually for life-and-property emergencies.
The upshot, Wyman told The Olympian, is that she and Inslee's budget staff are scouring other fund sources for money. One option may be to tap unspent funds in Wyman's budget. At least a few hundred thousand dollars are available from information technology positions not yet filled, Wyman said.
That isn't enough to cover all the postage costs. But in one scenario, counties could get partial assistance with postage costs - if they provide a matching share.
That is better than no help for counties. In Thurston County, Auditor Hall says she lacks money to pay an estimated $35,000 for new ballot-return envelopes and $42,000 for the expected boost in postage costs. That is separate from postage costs for military and overseas ballots, which the federal government pays for.
If Wyman and Inslee can solve this problem for 2018, that leaves an obvious job for the Legislature in January. And that is to craft a policy that helps voters return ballots in every county and jurisdiction.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was revised to clarify Auditor Hall's expectation that prepaid postage could boost mail-in returns of ballots by 30 percent, which translates into an expected increase in overall turnout of about 5 percent.