King County will be the first county in the state to offer paid-postage ballots, the county council voting by a wide margin to cover those estimated costs for the 2018 primary and general elections.

King County Elections director Julie Wise made the proposal as a way of improving voter turnout and access, which she told the county council has been a three-year effort.

The proposal followed a February 2017 pilot in Shoreline and Maple Valley during a special election. That pilot reported a 74 percent return by mail, compared to 43 percent in the 2016 general election. Elections reported an 8 percent increase during a second pilot in April 2017.

Washington switched to mail-in ballots in 2011, and King County Elections reports the last several elections have been evenly split between returns by mail and ballot drop boxes. Elections expects the paid-postage to increase mail-in participation by 10 percent.

The county council voted 7-2 on May 7 to approve a supplemental budget appropriation of $381,000 to King County Elections, which will now send ballots in business-reply return envelopes. The United States Postal Service will charge King County 50 cents per ballot returned by mail. 

The postal service has delivered ballots without postage to King County in the past, but at a cost of $1.70 per ballot, and to the tune of $50,000.

“It’s kind of the worst best-kept secret,” Wise said, “that you cannot put a stamp on your ballot and send it in, and we will pay.”

Wise said the $381,000 King County Elections requested is an estimation, and based on an expected turnout of 40 percent in the 2018 primary and 60 percent in the general election.

“That figure, of course, could be lower, because we take into account the $50,000 that we’re spending already,” she said.

King County expects to be reimbursed for half of that $381,000, from cities participating in the primary and general elections.

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who moved to adopt the legislation, said he sees paid-postage saving taxpayers money in the long run, particularly in relation to the cost of maintaining and staffing ballot drop boxes.

“The beauty of this is now there will be a drop box at the end of every driveway,” he said.

King County Councilmembers Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn voted against the legislation, and each had amendments they wanted added in return for the funding.

Lambert withdrew one proposed amendment before it went to a vote, which would have withheld $50,000 from the King County Elections budget until it provided, and the council approved a report detailing voter data with paid postage coupled with elections data going five years back.

Wise said her department would provide a report anyway, which it does each year, but getting that by the end of November wasn’t likely. 

Lambert said she wanted the data well before the Washington Legislature convened its January session, and she withdrew the amendment after being told a report would be possible by mid-December.

The paid-postage ballot legislation had been set for a vote on April 30, but Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told the council then that it would be unfair to provide paid-postage ballots in King County when smaller counties couldn’t. She is seeking approval from Gov. Jay Inslee to provide paid-postage ballots statewide. Lambert, also a Republican, agreed.

“It impacts other counties,” she said. “You might be surprised to know that we are not the most popular county in the state of Washington.”

Lambert’s second amendment, which was voted down, would have required the paid postage for 2018 to be a one-time expense, pending a policy discussion, she said.

King County is expecting a $25 million budget shortfall next year, she said, and it’s important to hear what the governor and Legislature has to say about statewide paid postage.

The prepaid postage cost is expected to increase from $381,000 this year to $1.14 million in 2019-20, and then drop to around $1 million in 2021-22.

Dunn was successful in getting enough support for his amendment, which asks the Elections director to give voters the option to still include their own postage, if that were a feasible option.

Wise said the administrative cost of having staff look over a million ballots, find the ones that were stamped, and then send copies to the postal service for refunds, would likely be higher than any potential payback the county could expect.

“If it’s going to cost a buck to get half a buck back, that’s dumb,” Dunn agreed.

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she already serves jurisdictions with high levels of voter turnout, such as Mercer Island, and she wants to see that same participation in other parts of King County.