In a first for Eastern Washington, most voters will do their civic duty from their kitchen tables when the Seahawks stadium goes on the ballot next month.
Spokane, Pend Oreille, Adams and Ferry counties are among 27 statewide that will not open polls for the single-issue election on June 17.
Instead, residents will vote the same way they receive Christmas cards and Victoria’s Secret catalogs. By mail.
Voters will decide whether to demolish the Kingdome and replace it with a $425 million stadium and exhibition hall. Paul Allen, who has an option to buy the Seahawks, says the plan is necessary to keep the professional football team in Seattle.
Some voters already use absentee ballots, which are mailed, and Liberty School District is having its second all-mail election this month. But for most Spokane County residents, it will be the first opportunity to cast ballots by mail, a process that is cheaper and draws more voters than traditional elections.
County elections supervisor Tom Wilbur said the short notice for the June election is making preparation difficult. The state Senate didn’t agree until April 26 to put the issue to a vote.
“The Legislature has done us no favors,” he said.
Wilbur has to have the 240,000 ballots to a mail service by May 19. But the ballots haven’t been printed because a judge is still deciding whether the language proposed by the state is legal.
Making matter worse, Wilbur and elections supervisors from other counties must spend the better part of next week at an annual conference on the Kitsap Peninsula. The conference is about the only opportunity to receive training required by state law.
Walla Walla County Auditor Jan Bates decided there wasn’t enough time to pull together a first-ever mail-in election. Two school districts in her county have elections that won’t be certified until May 30.
“That’s a really fast turn-around,” Bates said.
Lincoln County Auditor Shelly Johnston was scared away from a mail-in ballot by a state law that requires counties to file plans at least 60 days before they hold their first such election. Most counties have plans on the books; hers does not.
In a recent letter to his colleagues, Sam Reed, director of the state Association of County Auditors, called the 60-day law “obscure and meaningless.” The law is moot, since this election wasn’t even approved by the Legislature 60 days in advance, Reed wrote.
“I realize what Sam’s memo says and he may be right,” said Johnston. “I just don’t know if we would want to (defend the election) in court, if that were necessary.”
The tight schedule also prevented a mail-in ballot in King County, the state’s most populous.
“The last thing we want to do is leave this subject to any type of risk, considering a lot of people are going to be interested in the outcome,” said Bob Bruce, King County elections superintendent.
Mail-balloting nearly always boosts voter turnout, elections officials said. In some rural elections, the increase can be as much as 300 percent.
The jury is out on whether more voters means more or less support for an issue.
Last year, backers of two Spokane Valley incorporation drives postponed their elections rather than use mail-in ballots. They were convinced that more voters meant less support for the proposed cities, which failed miserably at the polls nine months later.
Two years ago in King County, a big absentee turnout - about one-quarter of the total votes cast - sank a proposal for a new Seattle Mariners ballpark.
Voters who went to the polls approved the ballpark by a substantial margin, but it lost by 1,500 votes because people who voted early by mail were overwhelmingly against it.
Voters in Liberty School District rejected a bond issue by 11 votes last September, when the election was by mail. But they also rejected the six previous bond issues, when elections were held at the polls.
“That (September election) was closer than it’s ever been,” said Wilbur.
King County’s decision not to vote by mail may be critical for the upcoming election. Polling indicates support for the proposal is shakiest in the Seahawks’ home county, so a smaller turnout there could be a boost for stadium backers.
Sam Reed, director of the state Association of County Auditors, estimated the mail-in vote will shave about $500,000 off the typical $3.4 million cost of a statewide election. Allen, a billionaire, has promised to pay election costs.
Campaigners probably will spend more on advertising, because voters can mull their decision for more than two weeks. Counties must send out the ballots no later than May 28, and voters must put them in the mail early enough to be postmarked by midnight June 17.
“You basically triple the amount of money you spend on television or whatever medium you are using to communicate,” said Brett Bader, a Republican consultant who is not working on the football issue.
Nevertheless, opponents and supporters both said they’re glad most voting statewide will be by mail.
“It just takes away the aura of special anything and makes it a real true democratic vote,” said Bob Gogerty, a spokesman for Allen’s Football Northwest group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: The Seahawk’s stadium vote