The Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee acted with noble aims in passing a 2017 law to require counties to install more ballot boxes. However, as a King County judge has ruled, that law also showed willful disregard for fiscal reality.

Because it’s illegal for state government to force an unfunded mandate onto other governments, state coffers could owe counties more than $1.2 million. There is a lesson here. The Legislature cannot pretend that high-minded ideals can transcend financial reality. 

Both political parties bear the blame for this misguided lawmaking, which drew a successful lawsuit from Kittitas, Snohomish and Whitman counties.

Senate Bill 5472, authored by then-Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, set good, clear requirements: Each county needed one ballot box for every 15,000 registered voters, and must install a box in each municipality and place with a post office. That meant 257 new drop boxes statewide, at a cost of more than $1 million just to install, plus an estimated $257,000 a year to maintain the boxes and collect ballots from far-flung locations. Two elections staffers must travel to every ballot box at 8 p.m. election night to close polls in each of the four annual scheduled elections.

Lawmakers were aware of these costs, yet waved aside the idea of actually paying the bill. Pearson, now a Trump administration official, touted his bill as a way to overcome the “poll tax” of needing to buy postage to return mail ballots. (The Legislature has since also agreed to cover the cost of ballot return postage as well.) In a committee hearing, he pooh-poohed the expense: “The Salvation Army or services for the blind, they have drop boxes everywhere,” Pearson said. “I think we can do that.” 

The Senate passed the bill unanimously. In the House, it got through almost entirely with Democratic support. Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, told the House: “To complain about the cost of elections, I think, is just a terrible assault on democracy at some point, perhaps.” 

Idealistic and dismissive rhetoric doesn’t pay anyone’s bills. King County Superior Court Judge Nelson K.H. Lee found Oct. 14 that the state owes counties the funding for these hundreds of ballot boxes. When the Legislature returns for its next session, that money will have to be found in state coffers already strapped by the pandemic downturn. So will the billions of dollars needed to adequately fund schools, mental health, transportation and a social safety net strained by demand.

The lesson of Judge Lee’s ruling is important. Lofty ideals are great. But responsible governing means obeying fiscal reality, not magically thinking that noble principles pay for themselves. Hard choices lie ahead. The math must add up. Bills must be paid. County auditors spent time and money suing the state to make this clear.

Legislators who pretend otherwise are not acknowledging the truth.