Kim Wyman: Lessons From Washington's Vote-By-Mail System

Apr 23, 2020

As other states consider moving to mail-based voting systems, Secretary of State Kim Wyman looks at the lessons Washington has learned.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Washington voters have cast ballots by mail exclusivity for 10 years. Other states are exploring that option, with Covid-19 looming as a potential threat for the presidential election in November.


Secretary of State Kim Wyman looks back at how the state has dealt with challenges to vote-by-mail, and what else might be ahead for voters this fall.

Five states currently use vote-by-mail (Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii are the others). Others are looking into how they can expand their systems to allow for such a process to protect people from the Covid virus, come this fall.

Washington gradually ramped up its vote by mail system beginning in 1993, when permanent absentee ballots became available. The legislature gave counties the right to go to all vote by mail in 2005, and all counties took that option by 2010.


Wyman says, initially, it took some time to build up capacity to be able to count ballots over a week-long period and to institute security measures, like being able to digitally compare voter signatures on ballots to those on file.


“The biggest one is the reconciliation of the ballots. Being able to account for every single ballot that is returned, and at the end of the certification period being able to say 100,000 ballots came back, 95,000 were counted, and the 5,000 that weren't were rejected for these specific reasons," she said.


The future of the U.S. Postal Service is uncertain. Emergency funding is needed to keep the operation viable.

“We do have continuity of operation plans for the worst case scenario, if, for some reason, the Post Office was not able to provide us the service. That would probably involve some of the other carriers like UPS," Wyman said, "But, hopefully, we won't have to operate any of those continuity plans at all.”


She says many states will have to boost their capacity from being able to handle 3% of their ballots as absentee, to handling 30% or more to ensure safety for those worried about going to the polls in November.


She says for Washington and other states, many election workers who process absentee ballots or work the polling places are in the 65 and older age group, who are most threatened by the virus. She says that could reduce the available workforce by half to two-thirds by Election Day.

President Trump has said the vote-by-mail process is prone to corruption.