Interest in this year’s presidential election is strong, and the public’s expectations of Pierce County’s Election Center are high.
People expect voting to be as easy as possible. Vote by mail has helped. Voters get their ballots delivered to their homes and have 18 days to return them at 30 ballot drop boxes, 24 hours a day, postage-free. Or, with one first-class stamp, ballots can be mailed through the U.S. Postal Service, just like a bill.
But we still get requests for more options.
In Pierce County, 34 percent of residents struggle to pay for basic needs. Although 97.7 percent of Pierce County households own a vehicle, not all of them run, and not everyone can afford gas. Many people don’t have access to stamps, and others say that even 47 cents is difficult to scrape together.
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Those are the concerns recently expressed by Tillicum residents in Lakewood. Although Tillicum voters have one drop box 3.7 miles away, they point out that boxes aren’t helpful if your car won’t start. Likewise, Pierce Transit directly connects Tillicum to the box at Lakewood City Hall, but it’s a $2 fare.
Let me address these and other points I’ve heard from well-meaning citizens.
▪ Postage-paid return envelopes. The Legislature has studied this and may take it up again. Business reply postage is more expensive than a first class stamp. And postage-paid envelopes aren’t routinely given a cancellation stamp. This date stamp is the only way we’re legally allowed to count your ballot, should it arrive after Election Day.
▪ Add more drop boxes. We’re working on it. We add one or two boxes each year. Pierce County has 30 boxes now and is a leader in Washington state. Each election night, 64 trained staff are needed to make the final pick-up. Adding boxes means adding and managing more people. We’re nervous about our capacity.
▪ Add them now. It takes four to six months to fabricate a box, negotiate easements, secure construction permits, get bids and contract with the property owner. Each box costs $10,000 and requires advance budgeting. We submit our budget in July, and spending isn’t authorized until January.
▪ Fair drop box distribution. Placement is based on location analysis using digital mapping software. We look primarily at population density, so boxes can serve as many citizens as possible. Right now, 98 percent of residents are within a 10-mile drive and 88 percent of residents are within a 5-mile drive. We also consider geography, tolls and other variables.
▪ Drop boxes are needed to increase turnout. Boxes are placed to serve all citizens, regardless of whether they are registered to vote or cast a ballot. Surprisingly, boxes don’t seem to inspire greater participation. With four years of data under our belt, we haven’t seen voting increase in neighborhoods where drop boxes are sited, even if the box is within walking distance.
▪ Box locations don’t serve the poor. When we overlay our drop box map on household income data, we see that 30 percent of boxes are in low-income areas. Like all urban counties, Pierce County has many neighborhoods throughout its 1,600 square miles and 23 cities and towns where poverty exists.
In recognition of this, four drop boxes are at major transit hubs, which connect 20 local buses. Pierce Transit’s ridership has a significant percentage of seniors and people living with disabilities.
Siting enough drop boxes to be within walking distance of low-income households is simply beyond Pierce County’s means. But rest assured, we continue to carefully increase our drop boxes, within available resources, to serve the greatest number of citizens.
Julie Anderson is the elected Pierce County auditor, serving since 2009.