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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

WALeg Day 15: Should state pay to mail back ballots?

OLYMPIA -- Adding return postage for the state's all-mail balloting would cost about $1 million for a presidential election and about $2.7 million for the next two years, a Senate committee was told today.

But supporters of a proposal to do just that say it would make voting more convenient and remove a possible barrier for poor residents.

"Of all the barriers (to voting) being poor should not be one of them," Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said. 

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, likened the need to put a stamp on the ballot envelope to a poll tax. "I think today, for some people it's pretty hard to find a postage stamp," Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said.

But state and county elections officials attempted, without much apparent success, to tamp down the enthusiasm for an idea that has surfaced regularly in previous Legislatures, but never managed to pass.

"By definition, this would not be a poll tax," Monty Cobb of the association of counties told Pearson. It's possible to turn in a ballot without postage by putting it in a drop box for free.

The mechanics are also difficult, because if counties use a postage meter to stamp the return envelopes, they'll pay for the ballots that aren't returned as well as the ones that are. The post office also doesn't always postmark envelopes with metered stamps, and postmarks are necessary to determine whether the ballots that arrive after election day were mailed by the deadline.

The Secretary of State's office, which oversees elections, supports the concept. "Our main concern is the postmark," Sheryl Moss, of the state elections office said.

 Roach suggested the state should be able to mark an envelope to be mailed without a stamp, similar to the way members of Congress frank their mail. That would be fine, if the Legislature can convince Congress to extend the franking privilege, Cobb said.

The proposed bill only applies to state primaries and general elections, so counties or small districts would have to pay for postage on special elections, or voters would have to use a stamp for some elections but not others.

Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, questioned whether return postage would lead to better turnout: "We've made it so easy for folks to vote, I wonder if we've gotten to a point where we're over-thinking it."

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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