NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

A stamp shouldn’t be necessary to vote: Let’s keep ballot return envelopes postage-free

This year, Wash­ing­ton State took an impor­tant step towards low­er­ing bar­ri­ers to vot­ing by mak­ing all bal­lot return envelopes postage free. This move effec­tive­ly elim­i­nat­ed what had been akin to a poll tax. Every post office effec­tive­ly became a bal­lot drop box, with vot­ers every­where gain­ing the free­dom to return a bal­lot through the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice with­out need­ing to wor­ry about stamps.

Sad­ly, instead of cel­e­brat­ing the removal of a bar­ri­er to vot­ing, Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State Kim Wyman today sug­gest­ed that maybe it was­n’t worth it in a real­ly bad sto­ry pub­lished by MYNorthwest.com, the online hub for Bon­neville Inter­na­tion­al’s Seat­tle radio sta­tions KTTH 770 AM, KIRO 710 AM, and KIRO 97.3 FM.

The flawed premise of the sto­ry, authored by reporter Mike Lewis, is basi­cal­ly as fol­lows: Over­all vot­er turnout in the 2018 midterms isn’t going to end up high­er than 2010 turnout, so that means Wyman and Gov­er­nor Inslee’s move to pro­vide pre­paid postage on all bal­lot return envelopes was — and I quote! — a “bust”.

Wrong! Pro­vid­ing pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes was a respon­si­ble, appro­pri­ate, and inclu­sive vot­ing reform. It was worth doing regard­less of whether it bol­stered turnout across the board or not. It’s a reform that we absolute­ly must make per­ma­nent, even if Kim Wyman isn’t on board.

And it does­n’t sound like she is.

Wyman said the sta­t­ic vot­er turnout num­bers indi­cate that the Leg­is­la­ture might not be warm to fund­ing gov­ern­ment-paid postage mov­ing ahead.

“I think if we had seen stronger vot­er turnout, I’d be a stronger advo­cate (for con­tin­ued state bal­lot-postage fund­ing),” Wyman said.

“Was it nice for the state to do this for vot­ers? Sure it was,” she added.

But she got an ear­ful from both the peo­ple who sup­port­ed the effort and those who saw it as a waste of tax­pay­er mon­ey.

The larg­er point that law­mak­ers should deal with, she said, is that the state does not ade­quate­ly cov­er the cost of the elec­tions it requires the coun­ties to hold.

We are all in favor of pro­vid­ing coun­ties with more fund­ing to cov­er the costs of elec­tions. Few peo­ple know that the state has an arrange­ment with the coun­ties to reim­burse them for costs asso­ci­at­ed with statewide bal­lot mea­sures and state-lev­el con­tests in odd-num­bered years, but not in even-num­bered years. That makes no sense. The coun­ties should get reim­bursed for the state’s share every year.

By all means, let’s have that impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion about elec­tions costs. It will do us good: Elec­tions are a pub­lic ser­vice, after all. But pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes has to become manda­to­ry and per­ma­nent­ly fund­ed by the state.

If we’re going to be seri­ous about low­er­ing bar­ri­ers to vot­ing — and we should be — then pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes can­not be up for debate. It has to stay. This was first and fore­most a vot­ing reform, as opposed to an exper­i­ment to bol­ster midterm elec­tion turnout (which is what Kim Wyman seems to think it is).

We can eas­i­ly afford to con­tin­ue mak­ing it pos­si­ble to return a bal­lot through the post with­out a stamp. Any­one con­cerned about stream­lin­ing elec­tions and sav­ing mon­ey is wel­come to join NPI in call­ing for an end to the Feb­ru­ary and April spe­cial elec­tion win­dows and replac­ing them with a sched­ule that ordi­nar­i­ly has only two elec­tions per year: one in May or June, and one in Novem­ber.

(A pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry could also be held sep­a­rate­ly from those two elec­tions in years divis­i­ble by four, ide­al­ly on a date in March.)

Now, with regards to the effect that pre­paid postage had on vot­er turnout this year, here are some impor­tant points to con­sid­er that did­n’t make it into Mike Lewis’ sto­ry and the incred­i­bly dis­ap­point­ing com­men­tary from Kim Wyman it con­tains.

Let me begin by offer­ing some con­text on vot­er turnout.

It’s impor­tant to under­stand that since Wyman took office in Jan­u­ary 2013, vot­er turnout in every type of elec­tion — and Wash­ing­ton reg­u­lar­ly holds nine dif­fer­ent types, not count­ing Feb­ru­ary or April spe­cial elec­tions — had been declin­ing.

Last year, in fact, Wash­ing­ton set a record for the worst-ever gen­er­al elec­tion turnout in state his­to­ry, only two years after the last such record had been set.

Wyman did­n’t cause this declin­ing turnout, but she has cer­tain­ly known about the prob­lem for a long time, and she has failed to do any­thing to address it. We called on her repeat­ed­ly to lead on remov­ing bar­ri­ers to vot­ing. But she did­n’t.

This year, with the State Sen­ate back in Demo­c­ra­t­ic hands, the era of inac­tion on knock­ing down vot­ing bar­ri­ers final­ly came to an end.

At Gov­er­nor Inslee’s urg­ing, the Leg­is­la­ture passed the ground­break­ing Access to Democ­ra­cy pack­age, cham­pi­oned by Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­tors like Sam Hunt, Zack Hud­gins, Pat­ty Kud­er­er, Rebec­ca Sal­dana, Lau­rie Dolan, and Steve Bergquist.

As a con­se­quence, we’re now get­ting same-day vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, and youth pre­reg­is­tra­tion, plus the Wash­ing­ton Vot­ing Rights Act.

Then, after the leg­isla­tive ses­sion end­ed, King Coun­ty announced it would pro­vide pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes for all its vot­ers.

Not want­i­ng Wash­ing­to­ni­ans out­side of King Coun­ty to be left out, Wyman and Inslee cob­bled togeth­er funds from their own office bud­gets to ensure the oth­er thir­ty-eight coun­ties could copy King Coun­ty’s move at no addi­tion­al cost.

Each of the elec­tions we have now held with pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes have bucked the declin­ing turnout trend we’ve been mired in.

In August, we saw statewide vot­er turnout of 40.79%, the high­est in years — high­er even than turnout in the 2016 Top Two, which was a pres­i­den­tial year and thus not direct­ly com­pa­ra­ble. And in this Novem­ber 2018 gen­er­al elec­tion, we’re cur­rent­ly see­ing vot­er turnout of 71.09% statewide, with a few bal­lots still to count. That’s a huge increase over the 2014 midterms, when turnout was only 54.16%.

Wyman has long argued that turnout is a func­tion of what’s on the bal­lot, and she stub­born­ly believes this to be true, even though it’s actu­al­ly just one fac­tor that influ­ences turnout. Accord­ing­ly, she is mea­sur­ing 2018 turnout against 2010 turnout, because 2010 is last midterm elec­tion we had with a Unit­ed States Sen­ate race near the top of the bal­lot. 2014 is appar­ent­ly irrel­e­vant and mean­ing­less.

Wyman’s analy­sis is flawed in mul­ti­ple respects.

First, if we’re going to make com­par­isons, we may as well com­pare 2018 with 2014, since 2014 was the most recent midterm. No two elec­tions are exact­ly alike. Any com­par­i­son we wish to make will be flawed to some extent.

Com­pared to 2014, 2018 turnout is a giant improve­ment.

Sec­ond, while 2014 may not have had a U.S. Sen­ate race, it did have three ini­tia­tives (I‑591, I‑594, I‑1351), a few State Supreme Court races, and ten U.S. House con­tests. I‑591 and I‑594 con­cerned gun safe­ty, a con­tentious issue.

Third, our 2018 U.S. Sen­ate race was not com­pet­i­tive, where­as the 2010 U.S. Sen­ate race was. By Wyman’s log­ic, that makes this year’s turnout more impres­sive.

Unlike in 2010, when Dino Rossi’s can­di­da­cy was con­sid­ered to be a real threat to Pat­ty Mur­ray’s reelec­tion, Maria Cantwell was nev­er con­sid­ered to be in dan­ger of los­ing. The state Repub­li­can Par­ty did not even pro­duce a can­di­date it want­ed to stand behind (Susan Hutchi­son) until a few min­utes before the end of fil­ing.

Fourth, the uni­verse of vot­ers has expand­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly since 2010. Eight years ago, accord­ing to state data, there were 3,601,268 vot­ers reg­is­tered. Now there are 4,362,014. Because our vot­ing rolls have grown, more peo­ple have to vote in order for us to equal or sur­pass the record or high per­cent­ages we set in the past.

Fifth, 2018 turnout may not end up high­er than 2010 turnout, but this ban­ner year fol­lows a long peri­od of declin­ing vot­er turnout across all kinds of elec­tions, where­as 2010 fol­lowed 2008, a cycle in which we set an all-time vot­er turnout record.

Sixth, 2018 stacks up incred­i­bly well against every oth­er midterm elec­tion in mod­ern times, per­cent­age-wise. Since our elec­toral his­to­ry did­n’t begin in 2010, why lim­it our­selves to com­par­ing 2018 to that cycle? Let’s com­pare 2018 to even more midterms — includ­ing midterms with a U.S. Sen­ate race.

Midterm Vot­er Turnout, Last Thir­ty Years

  • 2018: 71.09% Novem­ber turnout (so far)
  • 2014: 54.16% Novem­ber turnout (no U.S. Sen­ate race)
  • 2010: 71.24% Novem­ber turnout (Pat­ty Mur­ray vs. Dino Rossi)
  • 2006: 64.55% Novem­ber turnout (Maria Cantwell vs. Mike McGav­ick)
  • 2002: 56.35% Novem­ber turnout (no U.S. Sen­ate race)
  • 1998: 62.17% Novem­ber turnout (Pat­ty Mur­ray vs. Lin­da Smith)
  • 1994: 59.85% Novem­ber turnout (Slade Gor­ton vs. Ron Sims)
  • 1990: 61.24% Novem­ber turnout (no U.S. Sen­ate race)

As we can see, our cur­rent turnout is quite a bit high­er than every midterm held dur­ing the last thir­ty years except 2010. 2010 was the big out­lier… until now.

2010 was a very dis­tinc­tive elec­tion in many ways. For exam­ple, there were an extra large num­ber of bal­lot mea­sures (nine total), there was that tight U.S. Sen­ate race that attract­ed the atten­tion of the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, and King Coun­ty joined near­ly every oth­er coun­ty in adopt­ing vot­ing at home as opposed to a hybrid sys­tem of polling places for in-per­son vot­ing plus “absen­tee” vot­ing.

If we aver­age all midterms going back to 1990 togeth­er, we get 62.58%. Our cur­rent statewide turnout com­pares very favor­ably to that aver­age.

A few weeks ago, when I inter­viewed King Coun­ty Elec­tions Direc­tor Julie Wise, I asked her if pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes had made a dif­fer­ence in the August Top Two elec­tion. And she said it had. Here’s our exchange:

NPI’s ANDREW VILLENEUVE: Hi, Julie. Last time we talked, King Coun­ty Elec­tions had just announced pre­paid postage [on bal­lot return envelopes], and we’ve [now] had a first elec­tion with that.

What were the results? Was it a suc­cess?

JULIE WISE: Yeah, it was a great suc­cess! We saw approx­i­mate­ly four to five per­cent increase in turnout in the [Top Two] elec­tion that I real­ly attribute to pre­paid postage. I real­ly don’t see any sort of oth­er issues on a [Top Two] bal­lot that would lead vot­ers to have vot­ed in a high­er per­cent­age, or turned out in a high­er per­cent­age.

So it was a great suc­cess.

And we also saw that vot­ers’ behav­ior changed.

Where [pre­vi­ous­ly] fifty per­cent of vot­ers were return­ing bal­lots through a drop box and [fifty per­cent] through the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice, [we saw] sev­en­ty per­cent of vot­ers return­ing [their bal­lots] through the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice instead.

So that, and, we didn’t see any issues through the Unit­ed States Postal Ser­vice. USPS did an awe­some job of mak­ing sure that we received bal­lots with­out any delay, and there were no issues.

So, to me, that’s a win.

When we look at King Coun­ty’s cur­rent turnout ver­sus its 2010 gen­er­al elec­tion turnout, we can see a bump. Eight years ago it was 71.65%, and now it’s 74.6%, with bal­lots still to be count­ed. That’s def­i­nite­ly an improve­ment.

Exact­ly how much did pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes help King Coun­ty reach that impres­sive mark? We can’t know for sure.

But Elec­tions Direc­tor Julie Wise cer­tain­ly believes that lib­er­at­ing vot­ers from need­ing a stamp to return a bal­lot has a pos­i­tive effect on turnout.

And she is much clos­er to the action, so to speak, than Sec­re­tary Wyman.

We can com­pare data points till the cows come home, and argue to what extent vot­ing reforms affect turnout. But we all ought to be able to agree that vot­ing should­n’t be dif­fi­cult and bur­den­some. Peo­ple should not have to jump through hoops — like acquir­ing a stamp — in order to par­tic­i­pate. It its there­fore imper­a­tive we con­tin­ue to pro­vide pre­paid postage on bal­lot return envelopes.

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One Comment

  1. Vot­ing is eas­i­er when you don’t have to hunt around for a stamp.

    # by Jeffrey Latvia :: November 19th, 2018 at 7:02 PM