After years of experimenting, King County elections officials are getting serious about a key barrier
by Hanna Brooks Olsen
Though voters in some Washington State counties have been mailing in their ballots for more than a decade, it was just seven years ago that the law of the land finally did away with polling places. Old-timers will complain that sitting at your kitchen table, rather than waiting in line in a school gym, just isn’t the same—but the data makes it clear that the handful of states to have made the switch to a completely absentee system enjoy safer, more secure, and more accurate elections.
Voting by mail is more equitable, in that it doesn’t require the time commitment during business hours of an in-person polling place. There’s no fear of being turned away on the day-of. And while it may present some challenges for folks without stable housing, local elections officials and non-profits have taken measures to ensure that any legal voter who wants one can get a ballot.
And this week, King County Elections Executive Director Julie Wise took a big step toward finally putting to rest the single biggest thorn that has poked and prodded at the efficacy and inclusion of vote by mail: That pesky stamp.
Is a Stamp Really a Barrier?
Wise formally submitted a request for funding that would cover the cost of postage for all voters throughout King County, citing recently-collected data in smaller special elections which demonstrated that paid postage increases voter engagement. Wise requested a total of $381,000, to ensure that every ballot would be paid for, though the program is expected to cost less than $200,000, as King County will only incur a charge if a ballot is returned.
This request could be a huge boon to local elections, where turnout typically hovers around 30 percent or less—but there are still a lot of questions around the role of postage when it comes to voting.
Already, critics have taken to Facebook and Twitter to protest the idea that a stamp is really a barrier; if a person can’t afford a stamp, should they even really be voting?
But the stamp has long been a symbol of something worth much more than 49 cents.
Voting is, by its nature and by the law of the United States of America, supposed to be free and accessible. But for centuries in this country, barriers—ranging from reading tests to voter ID laws—have been put up to discourage marginalized individuals from voting. Poll taxes, wherein voters were literally required to pay a tax to cast a ballot, have long been unconstitutional—but, multiple legal scholars have determined, by requiring voters to pay to send their ballots back, that’s effectively what the County has been doing.
That’s why ballot drop-boxes have also been provided. In the last several years, King County has massively expanded its number of permanent ballot boxes, in large part due to the racial and cultural inequality presented by the location of the boxes and the languages in which voter outreach has been offered.
Still, the need for a stamp remained for those who didn’t want to go find a ballot box, or who had a hard time accessing one due to mobility or other issues. Voting could not truly be free and accessible as long as some people needed to pay money to do it, regardless of how little money that may be.
And according to King County’s own experiments over the last year, where ballots have been prepaid for small and special elections in areas like Vashon Island, taking away the stamp issue really does help get more folks to vote.
In April of 2017, King County Elections tested paid postage for ballots in an election with just under 9,000 potential voters. This was their second pilot for prepaid postage and, according to elections officials, it worked.
“Voter turnout was 52 percent, 6 points higher than our projected 46 percent,” the Elections Office reported. “About 76 percent of ballots were returned through the mail, and 24 percent were brought to a drop box.”
Do I Really Need a Stamp?
In October of 2016, KUOW boldly stated that you do not, in fact, need a stamp to mail your ballot. Citing the USPS’s own rule, which states that postal workers are instructed to deliver ballots regardless of postage, they declared that postage was unnecessary. Years earlier, staffers at the Stranger tried this experiment and found that it worked. However, this is not, by any stretch, a perfect rule.
Multiple individuals—including Snohomish County Councilmember Hans Dunshee, who has worked in his own county to reduce barriers to access with regard to voting—have had their ballots returned due to insufficient postage.
Dunshee told the Everett Herald that he was concerned about others voters who may post their ballots without a stamp and have it returned too late for their vote to be counted. This is, of course, one of the most critical problems with declarations like KUOW’s, which might make voters feel like mailing their ballot without a stamp on the day before it’s due is a foolproof method—in the event that a ballot does get returned, a voter may not have a chance to get it in with the right postage, or at a ballot box.
By prepaying for the postage of a ballot, King County stands to reduce this confusion altogether, effectively doing away with one of the single most problematic pieces of an otherwise effective system.
Additionally, King County could serve as a leader to encourage the rest of Washington State to act. Lawmakers like State Senator Bob Hasegawa have been working on this issue at the state level for years, though Secretary of State Kim Wyman hasn’t shown a great deal of interest.
If King County Elections’ request is approved and prepaid postage becomes a reality, it may light a fire in the state Legislature and expand the program to more Washingtonians.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a co-founding editor of Seattlish and has written for the Atlantic, CityLab, and Seattle Met. When not stringing together words or making sounds she enjoys music on vinyl, bourbon, college football, making impulse purchases at second-hand stores, ballet, and sitting in dark bars with friends. She also sings a mean rendition of Walking in Memphis.