OLYMPIA — Voting by mail may seem so familiar in Washington these days as to be baked into our civic culture.
But the ballots landing in residents’ mailboxes next month are the product of decades of experiments and reforms — sometimes painful ones — as local and state election officials gradually reimagined a new way for public participation.
Washington’s story also contradicts President Donald Trump’s attempts this year to disparage mail voting as he trails in the polls. Trump has sought to cast doubt on the coming election results by suggesting Democrats are pursuing mail voting in an effort to commit fraud and win the election.
Last week, the president on two occasions declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, according to news reports.
Washington’s experience is almost a mirror opposite of the president’s portrayal.
Here, Republicans pushed early on to expand mail balloting. Voters liked mail ballots so much it eventually helped bring about the formal changeover.
And the 2004 gubernatorial election — which ended after two recounts, questions over accuracy and bitter acrimony — prompted Washington to adopt reforms and ultimately pushed the state toward all-mail elections.
Kim Wyman, the Thurston County auditor at that time, called the switch to mail voting the “hardest decision I ever made as county auditor, and absolutely the right one.”
“Very emotional, because I didn’t want to close the polls, that was a sense of tradition and ceremony,” Wyman, a Republican who is now secretary of state, said last week.
But the move to Washington’s all-mail voting — which has a host of safeguards against fraud and is considered one of the better-protected ones against foreign interference — took decades of trial and error.
Now, other states are rushing to adopt or expand mail balloting for the Nov. 3 election amid the coronavirus pandemic.
They must adapt as Trump — who dropped a mail ballot in a drop box in this summer’s primary election, just like many Washingtonians do — continues to say he may question the election results. At the same time, states are making sure recent U.S. Postal Service (USPS) changes that created widespread delivery delays this summer are halted for now, as a federal judge ordered.
Those elements have combined to put mail balloting in a spotlight like never before.
Wyman — along with local election officials in King, Snohomish and other counties — say they’re confident Washington’s elections will run smoothly.
Elsewhere, states — including hotly contested battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — must wade through questions and legal challenges as they prepare for mail balloting. Some fights could extend to Election Day and beyond. In a close race, challenges and uncertainties could provide confusion, or fodder for those want to cast doubt on election results.
That worries Jim Kastama, a former Democratic state senator who in 2005 spearheaded some of Washington’s key election-security reforms. States expanding mail balloting are figuring out processes while in some cases still having to set up polling places, all with limited time and resources.
“Unless the election is very overwhelming for one side, I think … we are really headed for a difficult time,” said Kastama, who is now a Puyallup City Council member.
“It just took off“
Washington’s changes began in earnest in 1983, when the Legislature passed a law allowing special elections to be conducted by mail.
Before then, absentee mail ballots had been available to voters with disabilities or who were 65 or older, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Other voters could request an absentee ballot, but had to make that request in writing, and for each election.
At that time, Thurston County Auditor Sam Reed saw an opportunity. Mail ballots could boost turnout and combat shortages of capable poll workers, said Reed. And, he saw it as a way to better inform voters.
“I really believed in getting an informed electorate,” said Reed, a Republican who went on to serve as secretary of state from 2001 to 2013. “And by that ballot sitting there, in their home, before they vote, guess what? They’re not just going to say ‘hey that rings a bell,’ and vote. They’re going to look it up if they have a voters pamphlet … or talk to somebody who’s knowledgeable.”
More milestones came in the 1990s, with laws that allowed local election officials to expand or experiment further. Most notable among them may have been a 1991 law allowing any voter to sign up for an absentee ballot — and keep automatically receiving them for future elections.
“The word got out and voom, it just took off,” said Reed. “People really liked it.”
For advice, Washington officials at that time could call their counterparts in Oregon, the one state further ahead in mail voting. Meanwhile, Reed’s efforts converted others, like Sam Hunt, a longtime Democratic Olympia lawmaker.
“He obviously was way out front on this, that was what spurred me to be an advocate for it,” said Hunt, who is currently a senator who chairs a committee that handles election legislation. “I saw what we were doing here, it was very successful.”
By 2004, the use of absentee ballots had risen, requiring more staff and resources, even in places like King County, which still conducted in-person elections.
“It was too challenging to run two separate, different elections,” said Julie Wise, the current King County Elections director. Back then, Wise worked there on the polling side, where she said staff increasingly struggled to secure polling sites and qualified election workers.
The problems came to a head in that year’s gubernatorial election between Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi.
In a razor-close race that evolved into a legal challenge, Gregoire was declared the winner — by about 130 votes — on the second recount.
During that fight, problems were found in several counties, officials said, including high-profile examples in King County. In one case, county officials found uncounted ballots as late as April 2005.
In response, legislators in 2005 passed a package of sweeping reforms. One bill included requirements for how ballots should be designed, as well as treated by election workers once received. It created training guidelines so election workers could verify voters’ signatures on the ballots. And it included requirements that ballots be reconciled to make sure they matched the number of participating voters in an election.
“The momentum of that Gregoire-Rossi election really allowed us to do far-reaching reforms … that hadn’t been done in Washington state,” said Kastama, who sponsored that bill.
Hunt, then a state representative, sponsored the successful legislation that allowed counties to voluntarily switch to all vote-by-mail.
The changeover quickened. King County made the switch in 2009. By 2011, when the Legislature passed a statewide vote-by-mail law, 38 of Washington’s 39 counties — Pierce County was the lone exception — were already using mail ballots.
Washington officials confident
Washington election officials say they’re confident the Postal Service this fall will give election mail swift treatment when ballots go out Oct. 16.
Don Cheney, of the American Postal Workers Union Local 298, said Tacoma’s mail-processing facility has seen a vast improvement in delivery since the summer delays.
And Cheney praised a new memo by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy stating that secure and timely delivery of election is a No. 1 priority. In an email, Cheney called it, “a dramatic and welcome change.”
Wyman in August announced an emergency rule to make sure ballots are delivered swiftly, and said her office will urge voters to return ballots early.
In an email Friday, Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell echoed that. Returning ballots early reduces lines at drop boxes and voting centers and cuts health risks for everyone involved, he wrote.
“Early action also helps spread the workload of processing ballots over a longer period of time, allowing us to better maintain social distancing and other recommended practices within our processing facilities,” wrote Fell.
Wise, the King County Elections director, has faith in officials elsewhere, who often administer elections in challenging circumstances, such as natural disasters, and now amid the pandemic.
“This a skilled group of people that have little time and less resources, and still do a great job administering elections,” said Wise. “So I still think elections administrators across the country will do a good job as they move to vote by mail.”