Washington’s vote-by-mail elections have become a fixture of the state’s democratic process, but the process can be improved.
In recent years, the Legislature has passed bills to improve ballot access through same-day voter registration and preregistration for future voters younger than 18. Both concepts came to Washington from other states, evidence that America’s decentralized elections systems can produce innovations worth borrowing.
Other states can provide cautionary examples, too.
Washington’s postage-paid ballot return envelope makes the voting process convenient for the vast majority of voters. Some still find participation challenging. Not all registered voters are consistent participants, either. These circumstances create an opening for third parties to offer help returning ballots. When this works, more people participate. But it can lead to chicanery.
In North Carolina, a 2018 Congressional election was thrown out after reports an operative had collected and tampered with absentee ballots. Criminal indictments and an election do-over ensued. Also in 2018, Defend Oregon failed to deliver 97 ballots to Multnomah County officials until after Election Day. The organization apologized and agreed to a settlement that involved a $23,725 fine. The votes never counted.
So far, this problem has not publicly surfaced in Washington, but the system is vulnerable. Currently, Washington has no restriction on who can collect other voters’ ballots, or a specific penalty for mishandling them.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has proposed, via request bills in the Senate and House, new safeguards for ballot delivery. The legislation sets out how to lawfully deliver another person’s ballot and attaches a felony charge to knowingly altering or discarding the ballot.
Any restriction on voting cannot be lightly imposed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in January that an Arizona prohibition on third party ballot collection and delivery was written with unconstitutional racial bias. But that law was a total ban on ballot collection; Wyman’s bill lays out a procedure that includes the collector maintaining a log of collected ballots and providing receipts to each voter involved.
Although “ballot harvesting,” as the collection process is euphemistically called, is not known to be widespread in Washington, “ballot curing” is a familiar, and legal, process in Seattle and statewide. In every election, some cast ballots are considered “spoiled” by factors such as a bad signature on the ballot envelope. Voters have the right to correct these errors and have their votes counted, and active campaigns sometimes bring the required paperwork to residences.
Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, has voiced concerns Wyman’s bills, Senate Bill 6412 and House Bill 2647, would eliminate ballot curing. Hunt chairs the Senate’s State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Senate bill Wednesday morning. Hunt’s concerns are valid. The curing process can be preserved, however, without delaying this necessary fix for a state elections law loophole.