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Legal fight over ‘Vote Early’ insert averted

The last two weeks before an election are always a frenzied time, with candidates and campaign staffs living on caffeinated beverages and junk food. This often produces overblown charges of chicanery or malfeasance. 

Take a complaint Washington Democrats were leveling against the Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson for an insert included with ballots sent to that county’s voters, urging them to vote early.

“Mail by Nov. 4” it says next to a picture of a free-standing mailbox. (For those who have forgotten this relic of the past, they are a blue metal container with a curved top, U.S. Postal Service logo on the side and a big oblong door that folds down.)

Or put it in a drop box by Nov. 8, the insert says next to a picture of a drop box.

This is actually good, albeit poorly worded, advice, particularly for anyone who is going to stick a stamp on the return envelope and trundle off in search of one of those old letter grabbers. Nov. 4 is a Friday, so if you drop a ballot off in mailbox that afternoon or evening, it might not get picked up on Saturday or Sunday, depending on the carrier’s route and schedule. So a Monday collection, possibly in the afternoon, means the ballot might not be postmarked until – ta da – Nov. 8.

In some states that rely on mail-in voting, don't care about the postmark; ballots must be in elections officials’ possession by election night. But in Washington, the postmark is crucial because the state will count a ballot it receives almost two weeks after the election, but only if it is postmarked by election day.

It's true you could take the ballot to an actual post office as late as Tuesday, and be confident it would get postmarked in time. But for many voters, a drop box might actually be closer.

One also can imagine the outrage if the insert said “Mail by Nov. 8” next to a free-standing mailbox because there’s a good chance such a ballot would get postmarked Nov. 9, and be rejected.

Washington Democrats threatened a lawsuit against Anderson if she didn’t “correct the false information” with a press release and social media posts by Oct. 28 and send voters a supplementary mailer by Tuesday. After the elections office initially argued that the mail early advice was actually on target, Anderson decided to avoid a legal fight and is sending all of that county’s voters a clarification, at a cost of $50,000. Democrats dropped their threat to sue.

Pierce County elections officials would be wise, however, to brace themselves for complaints from any candidate who loses a race by a handful of votes because the first place they're going to go is a claim their voters thought they couldn't cast a ballot after Nov. 4. 

The fact that Democrats were in high dudgeon about the insert suggests they may be more intent than Republicans on wringing votes out of Pierce County. But one can imagine a similar reaction from the state GOP had a similar notice been included in Republican-leaning Spokane County.

So to review, mail your ballot in such a way that it will be postmarked by Nov. 8. Or save yourself a stamp and stick it in a drop box anytime between now and 8 p.m. on election night. 




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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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