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Washington election officials issue emergency rule change to ensure mail-in ballots are received on time

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 26, 2020

Ryan Dosch, voter services specialist at the Spokane County Elections Office, rolls a cart weighting 840 pounds with ballots into a Ryder truck headed to the post office on Oct. 18, 2018. The Secretary of State’s office issued an emergency rule Wednesday requiring county election officials to use first-class postage to mail ballots.  (DAN PELLE)
Ryan Dosch, voter services specialist at the Spokane County Elections Office, rolls a cart weighting 840 pounds with ballots into a Ryder truck headed to the post office on Oct. 18, 2018. The Secretary of State’s office issued an emergency rule Wednesday requiring county election officials to use first-class postage to mail ballots. (DAN PELLE)

The Washington Secretary of State’s office issued an emergency rule Wednesday requiring county election officials to use first-class postage to mail ballots to voters within 15 days of November’s election, seeking to ensure ballots are delivered on time amid concerns over delays at the Postal Service.

The rule change, made in coordination with the state’s 39 county auditors, comes after Secretary of State Kim Wyman received a letter July 31 from the Postal Service’s top lawyer, warning of “a risk that some ballots will not be returned by mail in time to be counted.”

Washingtonians can register to vote by mail up until eight days before Election Day, while mail sent by the nonprofit bulk postage rate the state has traditionally used for ballots can take up to 10 days to reach its destination according to USPS delivery standards, although Wyman said election mail is typically delivered faster.

“Closer to Election Day, many counties throughout Washington already switch over to First Class mail to ensure voters receive materials with enough time to cast their ballots,” Wyman, a Republican, said in a press release. “This will provide more consistency statewide, and give voters some peace of mind heading into the Nov. 3 General Election.”

Counties will send ballots to the state’s 4.6 million registered voters by the statutory deadline of Oct. 16 by bulk rate postage. Under the new rule, any ballots sent after that initial mailing – to voters who register later, change their address or request a replacement ballot – will go by first-class mail, which should reach its destination within two to five days.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, said the rule change is meant to ensure Washington voters get the same treatment regardless of which county they’re registered.

“With 39 counties, it’s always possible we could be doing it 39 different ways,” Dalton said, “and with this particular election we are working very hard to make sure that we are staying consistent, so that all voters receive essentially the same level of service and the same experience.”

Dalton said the new rule won’t have any impact on voters in Spokane County because her office has already switched to first-class postage after the first batch of ballots are sent out in past elections. She said the relatively low number of ballots requested after the initial mailing has meant the county hasn’t qualified for the lower bulk rate, and assuring voters get their ballots quickly has been worth the extra cost of first-class postage.

First-class mail costs 55 cents per ballot packet, while the nonprofit rate is roughly 9 cents per envelope, making for extra costs for counties. Spokane County voters requested just 1,886 replacement ballots in the 2018 general election, but statewide the total was 97,972, according to data from Wyman’s office that does not include ballots sent to voters who registered in the two weeks before Election Day.

Dalton said her counterparts in Washington’s other counties, who have weekly calls with Wyman in the lead-up to the election, decided it was important to make sure all Washington voters have equal access to voting.

“In one of our many meetings as we were talking about the potential impact of some of the changes in the Postal Service,” she said, “this was one of the items that came up quickly, and all the auditors agreed that this was an area where we just needed to get standardized.”

Since the state transitioned to universal mail-in voting in 2011, Washington voters automatically receive mail-in ballots at the address where they are registered, which can be updated at the state election website, VoteWA.gov. Ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day or left in one of the state’s nearly 500 drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.


Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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