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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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