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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Prepaid postage for ballots would boost voter participation

Washington should try putting the “mail” in mail-in voting by providing prepaid postage on ballot envelopes.

Despite a relatively high turnout rate compared with other states, too many Washington voters are losing or discarding the ballots that are their tickets to full participation in our democracy. In November, returns collapsed to less than 40 percent of eligible voters for only the third time since 1958, and the first time since mail-in voting became the rule for all Washington elections.

A minority of a minority can carry a candidate, initiative or school levy.

Yet voting in Washington hardly could be easier. Ballots arrive two weeks before they must be returned, giving voters plenty of time to get the information they believe they need to make an intelligent choice. Fill out the ovals on the ballot, sign it, seal it in a security envelope and insert into the mailing envelope. Mail it or deposit it in a drop box. Every county must have two; Spokane County has 19.

In the November election, 54 percent of county voters used drop boxes.

For those who cannot use a drop box for reasons of mobility, for example, legislators are again considering a bill, SB5344, that would cover the postage for mailing. Counties would add up the postage due and bill the state for reimbursement. The estimated cost for the 2015-17 biennium is $2.7 million.

And easier said than done.

If the counties prepay postage for every ballot, most of it will be wasted. The U.S. Postal Service delivers ballots whether stamped or not, and might be able to calculate postage as the envelopes are processed.

And there’s the critical element of postmarks. Not all metered mail is postmarked, but every envelope must be stamped by 8 p.m. Election Day in order to be counted. As more mail is processed in central facilities like that on the West Plains, envelopes mailed earlier that day in a rural town or county might not reach the center by 8 p.m.

But the cost and timing issues should be solvable. The bigger question is this: After all the cost and the trouble, would enough additional voters be induced to cast a ballot to make the effort worthwhile?

Also, HB5344 applies only to general and primary elections. Would counties have to pick up the tab for special elections, at the risk of confusing or alienating voters?

The cost of a stamp might be a low hurdle, but it is meaningful to some households. The bill uses the odious term “poll tax.” And it’s a fact that far fewer households have stamps readily available as more and more personal and business transactions take place on the Internet, where voting also may be conducted in the not-so-distant future.

Meanwhile, trial runs with prepaid postage would be instructive technically and, hopefully, get more ballots into courthouses around Washington.

Compelling candidates and issues drive interest in elections, no matter the method of voting. But if prepaid postage will get marginal voters to cast a ballot, perhaps they will stay engaged in subsequent elections.