OLYMPIA — As of now, Washington state voters won’t need to find a stamp to mail in their election ballots — at least for the primary and general election cycle this year.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced May 15 that they had secured funding for statewide ballot return postage in the 2018 primary and general elections.
King County last week adopted an ordinance to pay for ballot return postage for its residents. That county decision prompted Wyman to call on Inslee’s office to determine if funding could be found to allow Washington’s 38 other counties to offer the same service.
Inslee’s office said it was able to combine $600,000 of the governor’s funds with a matching contribution from Wyman’s office in order to achieve statewide parity for the 2018 elections. That money will come from current fiscal year salary savings from unfilled positions and unanticipated existing funds intended to reimburse counties for previous election costs, the governor said.
The total cost for funding pre-paid postage for all 39 counties is an estimated $1.8 million. Inslee and Wyman said they were able to secure $1.2 million of combined funding. Because King County has already funded its 2018 primary and general election ballot return envelopes, Inslee and Wyman will ask the 2019 state Legislature for a one-time reimbursement for that county’s expenses.
Wyman said her office will administer the 2018 funding as a grant to all of the 38 counties that choose to provide pre-paid ballot return postage to their voters.
“This is about leveling the playing field and making elections equal for all citizens of Washington state,” Wyman said. She supported the King County measure and has supported statewide ballot postage proposals in previous sessions.
The funding agreement is great news, Kitsap County Auditor Delores Gilmore said following the governor’s announcement. She said that based on the number of registered voters in the county, her office — which administers county elections — will have up to $66,393.94 to pay for postage.
“We don’t know if it’s going to cost all of that, but it should not cost any more than that for the primary and general,” she said.
Gilmore said there are many variables in play, including uncertainty about how many voters will continue to drop off their ballots in county drop boxes. In those instances, the county wouldn’t have to pay for postage. She said in past elections, about half of the county’s voters turning in ballots have used the drop boxes.
“We think it’s great that we’re getting some funding for the [election ballot] postage,” Gilmore said. “What it doesn’t do is address how to pay postage if we have a special election in February or April next year.”
The county auditor said voters next year might assume the change is permanent when it’s time to mail in their ballots. To prepare for that possibility, Gilmore said she plans to ask county commissioners to approve funding for pre-paid postage in her office’s budget.
“I don’t know if that will be approved or not, but we’re sure going to ask for it.”
Gilmore said county auditors across the state are looking at creating legislation to help address that issue, as well as others created by new election laws that were passed “where the funding hasn’t really followed the new requirements.”
She said her office has held off printing election ballots while waiting for a decision between the governor and Secretary of State’s office. With a decision now a reality, Gilmore said the Elections Division in her office is now ready to start preparations for the primary and general elections later this year.
Wyman said she plans to work with Inslee to get a bill passed in 2019 to make Washington state the first in the U.S. with permanent universal postage-paid voting by mail.
The state Legislature approved several bills earlier this year to promote access to democracy, including automatic voter registration, Election Day registration and the Future Voter program for 16- and 17-year-olds.
“We’ll be working with legislators to secure ongoing funding, establish a permanent statewide program and ensure King County is reimbursed for their proactive work on this effort.”
Gilmore said she is hopeful the state Legislature will pass legislation to provide that funding.
“It comes down to a bill to make it permanent, but who pays? That’s the only thing that’s ever stopped this in the past for the county. If the state can come up with a budget, we’d be all for it.”