Washington's Secretary of State has requested the governor approve $2 million in emergency funding to cover statewide prepaid postage for mail-in ballots in this year's primary and general election.
Gov. Jay Inslee is considering a request from the state’s top election official to spend $2 million to cover prepaid postage on mail-in ballots for this year’s elections.
Secretary of State Kim Wyman made the emergency request in response to a similar measure before the Metropolitan King County Council. On Monday the county council decided to delay a vote by a week on a request sponsored by Councilmember Dave Upthegrove to spend $381,000 for prepaid postage for the Aug. 7 primary and the November general election.
The request originated with King County Elections Director Julie Wise.
Wyman on Monday told the council she supported prepaid postage but warned of potential voter inequality if the county moved on its own without the state’s 38 other counties.
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Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said emergency funds are limited, but that the governor’s office is examining what could be done to cover the cost if King County approves prepaid ballot postage. Inslee and his staff will work with the Office of Financial Management to reach a decision, which would need to happen soon because many counties are getting ready to print envelopes for the August primary.
In a letter to Inslee, Wyman wrote that her office’s highest priority is voter equality and the requested money is needed to ensure all counties are acting the same for the 2018 elections. She said “a new disparity between voters would leave residents of other counties voting under different rules than their King County neighbors.”
The letter points out King County’s huge influence on statewide elections, ballot measures and legislative and congressional races that spill across county lines. “In all these races, King County voters would have enhanced access to the ballot box, thus treating voters differently across the state,” Wyman stated in the letter.
Wise hasn’t discussed with the council or her staff what Wyman’s request means for King County. She assumes the county would be covered by the state if Inslee acts on Wyman’s request.
As for the issue of equity, Wise said there are many variations between the counties when it comes to voting, none of which have prompted a request for emergency funds before.
The $2 million from the state would be used to reimburse the state’s 39 counties for the cost of mail-in ballot postage. Wyman, a Republican, believes this is the first emergency request for money from the Secretary of State’s office.
A bipartisan bill from state Sens. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, and Joe Fain, R-Auburn, will be introduced in next year’s legislative session to establish prepaid postage on mail-in ballots across the state.
King would be the first Washington county to provide paid postage for ballots if the county council approves the request Monday. Of the $381,000 supplemental budget request, $191,000 would come from jurisdictions taking part in the election. Postage would cost 50 cents per piece.
King County Elections tested prepaid ballots in three special elections last year in Shoreline, Maple Valley and Vashon Island.
Shoreline saw a 10 percent increase in returned ballots, from 30 percent to 40 percent. Maple Valley increased ballot returns from 31 percent to 37 percent and Vashon Island bumped up to 52 percent from 46 percent.
Election officials have been trying to make it easier for people to vote since the county adopted mailed-in balloting in 2009. The number of ballot drop boxes, which don’t require postage, has been increased from 10 to 56, and ballots in King County are provided in Korean, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. The county has partnered with Seattle Foundation to educate voters and increase turnout.
Upthegrove said he expects the county council to pass the measure and that the attention the issue is getting on the state level is welcomed. “If we spur action, that is great. But we felt we couldn’t wait,” he said.