County elections officials in Washington are about to finish tabulating ballots in the state’s groundbreaking March 10th presidential primary, in which more than two million voters participated. Once they do that, though, they’ll have to turn around and mail out ballots to those voters in a jurisdiction with something on the ballot during the April 2020 special election window allowed by state law.
Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s top elections official, has concluded that it would be better if the April special election were not held due to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic. This week, she sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee urging him to cancel the April special election.
Her letter was cosigned by most of the state’s county elections officials.
“While public contact in an election is greatly reduced because Washington is a vote-by-mail state, the staffing requirements to conduct an election remain,” Wyman wrote. “The uncertainty of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could dramatically impair a county’s ability to perform its statutory duties in an election.”
Wyman’s chief concern is that a county elections office might have to shut down if somebody tests positive for the novel coronavirus.
“[A] positive COVID-19 diagnosis for an elections staff person could result in election offices being shut down for cleaning while the election is in progress and facilities are full of live ballots that require security,” Wyman theorized. “Additionally, election officials cannot safely assist voters in person while protecting their staff by maintaining social distancing required to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
That’s true, but canceling the April 28th special election would be problematic because a number of local governments have already used their statutory authority to submit measures to the voters for their consideration.
If the election is never held, what happens to those measures?
Wyman and elections officials argue that “these elections [meaning, the levy and bond measures that were submitted] can be rescheduled by the boards of each jurisdiction for August 4th or November 3rd, at their discretion.”
Okay, but presumably the boards of those jurisdictions submitted measures for the April 28th date because they didn’t want them to appear on the August or November ballots when other matters are being considered. If those jurisdictions wanted August or November, they could have picked August or November.
At NPI, we believe that the February and April special election windows should be permanently eliminated and replaced with a schedule that provides for elections in May and November (the August Top Two election would move to May).
Currently, however, state law allows a local government to submit measures to the ballot in February or April. Those are the rules. And until the rules are changed by the Legislature, elections officials should try to honor them.
Even in an emergency.
NPI’s Gael Tarleton, who is challenging Wyman for Secretary of State, argues that a better solution would be to postpone the April special election, not cancel it.
“Dictatorships cancel elections. Democracies don’t. Our vote-by-mail system should enable us to protect both election workers and our democracy,” Tarleton said in a news release. “People need to know that their voice still counts. Our Legislature must help fire districts, schools and utilities get the funding they need to keep our communities operational and safe. It’s the job of a leader to ensure democracy doesn’t die in a crisis and while we keep our workers safe.”
Perhaps what would make more sense is attempting to reschedule the April special election to June. That would give elections officials more time to prepare and develop plans to protect election workers, and the election could still be held separately from the other elections scheduled to be held later this year.
School districts face unique budgeting constraints because the school year is different from the calendar year. Because the Legislature still doesn’t provide sufficient funding to school districts, they remain dependent on voter approved levies and bond measures to remain fiscally healthy. Any district that was counting on passage of a levy measure next month could be gravely harmed by Wyman’s proposal.
Speaking of election security and good hygiene… let’s start working now on plans for procurement of better ballot return envelopes. Reforms are needed to improve the security and safety of our vote-at-home system. NPI advocates the following:
- Return ballot envelopes should have self-adhesive seals so that voters don’t have to lick or moisten them. Self-sealing envelopes are commercially available. There are two main types: peel ‘n stick (example) and flip ‘n stick (example). They cost more, but the cost is well worth it.
- The signature line should be moved to the ballot security envelope and the security envelope made mandatory. This way, people’s signatures, telephone numbers, email addresses, and party declarations (in presidential primaries) do not appear on the outside of the packet.
Governor Inslee has just signed a bill to require that ballot return envelopes state the date of the election, which is something else that was on our wish list. Thanks, Governor Inslee! And thanks to the prime sponsor, Representative Melanie Morgan, for bringing the bill. You can watch my testimony in support from TVW.
If you would like to read Wyman’s letter in full, it’s below.Letter requesting cancellation of April special election