During the run-up to Tuesday’s recall election of Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, tents along busy Capitol Hill streets invited voters to “print your ballot here” using cellphones and tabletop printers. Under the same tents, Sawant supporters stood beneath “Vote No” posters and enthusiastically handed out campaign literature and candidate pins while engaging with voters about the recall.
Whatever the results of the Dec. 7 recall, new election rules are needed to set boundaries ensuring that streetside votes are cast without coercion. Every potential voter deserves the improved ballot access that technology enables, but that process should be free of partisan, in-your-face electioneering.
Washington state has made great strides in improving access for voters, from the statewide expansion of vote-by-mail in 2005 through making ballot postage prepaid in 2018. Through these evolutions, the right to vote without coercion remains essential to free and fair elections.
Washington state elections law rightly sets clear lines between electioneering and the government’s management of elections. Yet print-on-the-street ballot distribution is too new to fall under any of these protections. King County elections officials said this week more than 70 people called concerned about the tactics of Sawant supporters. The response, so far, is that election law does not restrict sidewalk electioneering.
The state Legislature needs to step in. It is essential for the state to ensure unfettered access to the ballot box — especially in marginalized communities of color that have endured racist voter suppression tactics for decades. The voting process should not be tainted by slick campaigns designed to bias voters’ decision making.
Counties already operate “voting centers” for people who need assistance casting a ballot — or who simply choose to vote in person instead of using mail or a drop box. In those voting centers, it is a gross misdemeanor to “attempt to suggest or persuade any voter to vote for or against any ballot measure.” A separate law requires public college campuses to provide “student engagement hubs” for every election. Those “provide voter registration materials and ballots … and must be operated in a manner that avoids partisan interference or electioneering.”
In fact, state government’s commitment to keeping ballots influence-free runs so deep that the Legislature in 2016 unanimously made it illegal for a county auditor to have their name on a ballot envelope if the auditor’s office is up for election that year.
The evolving tactics to reach and influence voters, fueled by technology, should not be hijacked by electioneering. With clear rule making, political campaigns can still perform voter outreach in ways that keep the propaganda away from the voting process. For example, a campaign could set up a neutral, streetside, ballot-providing station in neighborhoods where there are likely to be supporters. That’s fair play. But the Sawant campaign put a thumb on the scale by commingling campaigning and voting, which revealed the need for a better law.
Entangling ballot access within a gauntlet of hard-sell political propaganda, regardless of the cause, is bad news for democracy. Electioneering while a voter is handed a ballot ought to be as illegal on the sidewalk as it is inside the courthouse.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.