Prepaid postage on election ballots is a good idea that should be expanded to potentially increase voter participation.
In several pilot projects last year, King County saw higher than expected turnout in districts where it tested prepaid ballots, although it’s hard to pinpoint the cause of turnout variations.
Now Elections Director Julie Wise and County Executive Dow Constantine are proposing that all county ballots come with prepaid postage.
This request should be supported by the King County Council promptly, in time for prepaid-postage ballots to be used in the August primary election.
If more promising gains in turnout are seen, the county’s experience could be used as a reference by other counties considering prepaid ballots.
It should also convince the Legislature to finally fund prepaid ballots for all elections in Washington state. Repeated proposals for state funding of prepaid ballots failed to advance in Olympia.
Prepaid-postage ballots are a logical next step in Washington’s strong efforts to increase voter participation.
They include new laws this year that automatically register voters when they obtain enhanced driver’s licenses, allow registration up to and including on election days and enable preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Since 2005 counties have been authorized to offer vote by mail. In 2011 Washington became the second state in the nation to adopt statewide voting by mail, dramatically increasing the convenience of performing this core civic duty.
Moving to mailed ballots increased convenience but also shifted some costs to voters. Voters now buy stamps to turn in their ballots, a public service that used to be free at county polling stations.
Constantine’s supplemental budget request for prepaid ballots estimates it will cost $381,000 this year, of which half would be reimbursed by local election districts. The county’s net cost is estimated at $191,000 this year, although that will vary depending on how many ballots are returned, since the county would pay postage only on ballots that are mailed.
Costs would jump if the program continues in future years. During the 2019-2020 budget cycle, which includes a presidential election, the county expects that its ballot postage costs could be $675,000. For context, the county’s annual elections budget is around $18 million.
Voting taxpayers will pay one way or another, either with stamps on their ballots or their general county funding.
There’s a good argument for prepaid ballots to be funded by the state, which Wise said already foists unreimbursed election costs onto counties.
Statewide funding would create a consistent approach and reduce any confusion by voters moving between counties.
A 2017 fiscal analysis estimated it would cost the state around $3 million per biennium to fund prepaid-postage ballots, which seems like a reasonable price to pay to make voting more convenient, accessible and consistent across the state.
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