Every piece of legislation considered by a body of elected officials has some kind of back story. Sometimes a bill is sparked by an idea from a constituent. That was the case with one bill (Senate Bill 5472) now waiting for Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s signature. It started with an innocuous question about election drop boxes.
“A high school teacher in the town of Granite Falls asked me, ‘Why doesn’t my community have a drop box?’ His community, Granite Falls, has about 35-hundred people,” said Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe).
The drop box to which he’s referring is a place where voters can take their completed ballots. The other option in Washington is to mail ballots. But Pearson doesn’t like that option, as he told his colleagues on the Senate floor in February.
“When you put a stamp on a ballot, to me, I kind of view that as a poll tax," he said. "And this last election, with everything on the ballot, it took two stamps to vote. You add that, two first-class stamps, that’s almost a dollar, 98 cents. That’s not fair to the people.”
So Pearson introduced a bill that would require counties to buy and install more drop boxes where voters can take their ballots for free. There are about 300 of them in Washington. In Pearson’s county, there are 12. That’s not enough for him.
His bill requires counties to install one drop box per 15,000 registered voters, and at least one in every city and town and every area recognized by the census bureau with a post office.
Good idea, says Elissa Goss, executive director of the Washington Student Association. She says students are less likely to vote when they have to hassle with stamps and the mail.
“So to have a ballot box on campus or as close to campus as possible is really a huge help to students,” Goss said.
Representatives of the Yakama and Colville Indian Tribes also testified in support.
County elections officials say they agree with the sentiment, but not with the details of Pearson’s bill.
“My name is Mary Hall. I’m the Thurston County auditor. And it’s painful for me personally to testify in opposition to this bill.”
Hall’s county has 26 drop boxes with plans to add two more. She says the process of finding places for boxes is sometimes complicated.
“Can you drive up to the box? Which means it has to be on a one-way street, in a circle or in a parking lot," she said. "Is it handicap accessible? Are there handicap parking spots nearby? Do the owners want it there? That’s not always the case. A lot of times people say no because they really don’t want the increased traffic.”
Despite her concern, Pearson’s bill sailed through committee and then through the full Senate with a unanimous vote.
But word began to spread among county auditors and other local elected officials. And by the time Pearson’s bill got to the House of Representatives, they were ready.
At a committee hearing in March, several county officials aired their concerns. Carolyn Weikel from Snohomish County said the bill would mandate 20 new boxes in her county, an expensive proposition.
“Our most recent drop box we installed was over $9,000. And I know a lot of legislators raise their eyes and say how could it possibly be $9,000. But I do have actual receipts if you’re interested in looking at them,” Weikel said.
Then it was Whitman County Commissioner Art Swannack’s turn.
“We would need 28 additional people to go out in pairs to close down these ballot boxes at the eight o-clock closing time of elections," Swannack said. "That is a huge staffing issue, temporary staffing issue, but they have to be qualified, they have to be trained, to go out there and put the locks on, make sure everything works right. We don’t believe it’s warranted because, honestly, everybody can mail their ballot in in our county. There are quite a few post offices and I don’t see that this bill solves a lot of problems.”
Pearson’s bill cleared the committee, with a few opposing votes, and then moved to the floor of the House, where mostly Republican representatives took up the county auditors’ case. Rep. John Koster (R-Snohomish County) introduced an amendment that would ease the financial burdens on local governments.
“It requires the state to pay for siting and maintaining and operation of the ballot boxes. The ongoing cost to counties is an unfunded mandate without this amendment,” Koster said.
The amendment narrowly failed on a mostly party-line vote. So did the bill itself.
Now it’s been passed to Governor Inslee for his signature or veto. Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, says she’s preparing for the worst, upset that the bill takes away her discretion to deploy limited resources.
“So now I’m going to have to put boxes in areas where they’re not going to get much use," Dalton said. "And because of that, I’m probably not going to have the money or the capacity of people and budget to be able to put boxes, in the next five years, where the growth is happening. So, this will help a handful of voters and it will hurt a far greater number of voters.”
There’s still a faint hope for county elections officials.
A House committee has held a hearing on a new bill based on some of the concerns from Senate Bill 5472. It changes the ratio for ballot boxes from one every 15,000 registered voters to one every 30,000. It removes the requirement that drop boxes be put in every city and town. It requires that the state, not counties and cities, pay for the cost of acquiring and operating ballot boxes. County elections officials say they are much happier with this version.
But there’s not much time left in the current session. Legislators will probably be called back into special session to negotiate a new budget, but whether this bill would continue to have life during extra time isn’t known.
Our thanks to TVW for some of the sound in this story.