Politics & Government

Threat of lawsuit prompts new Pierce County mailer reminding voters when Election Day is

The threat of a lawsuit from the Washington State Democratic Party has prompted Pierce County elections officials to agree to send out nearly 500,000 postcards reminding voters that Election Day is Nov. 8, not Nov. 4.

The agreement Thursday followed complaints from Democratic Party officials and Tina Podlodowski, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, that earlier ballot instructions from the Pierce County Auditor’s Office could confuse voters by making them think they had to mail their ballots four days early.

The Pierce County ballot insert, which accompanied about 484,000 ballots last week, said “Return your ballot early!” with a reminder, “Mail by November 4 (Stamp required).” The insert also said voters could drop off their ballot at one of the county’s official election drop boxes by 8 p.m. Nov. 8, the date of the general election.

Thursday morning, Jaxon Ravens, chairman of the Washington State Democrats, had a news conference in downtown Seattle to announce the party would sue Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson unless she took steps to clarify that voters have until Nov. 8 to mail their ballots.

In addition to sending clarifying information to voters by mail, Ravens also demanded that Anderson’s office send out a news release emphasizing the Nov. 8 deadline, and update the Auditor’s Office website to make it clear that the postmark deadline for ballots is Nov. 8.

“Everyone who received that ballot needs to receive a correction,” Ravens said Thursday.

Later in the day, Anderson told The News Tribune that her office had agreed to the party’s demands to avoid a costly lawsuit.

“We continue to maintain our voters were not confused and it was appropriate for us to prompt people to mail early to make sure their votes counted,” Anderson said. “But the Washington State Democrats raised concerns, they threatened us with a lawsuit and we want to be responsive and move on, because we are very busy with an election and this has been chewing up a lot of our time.”

The county will soon mail postcards stating that ballots must be postmarked on or before Nov. 8, along with a message recommending that voters return their ballots as soon as possible, Anderson said. She said her office had already updated its website and was drafting the new mailer before Ravens’ news conference Thursday.

Mailing the 8 1/2 inch by 5 1/2 inch postcards to Pierce County voters will cost the county $50,000, Anderson said.

Anderson said her office is working out some of the details to resolve the disagreement with Democratic Party officials, including the language of a news release that will be sent to meet one of the party’s demands.

In a statement late Thursday, Ravens said party officials “appreciate the county’s responsiveness to our concerns.”

“The county still has work to do and we will work with them every step of the way to make sure they empower voters,” he said.

Earlier this week, Anderson said her office included the earlier instructions to mail ballots by Nov. 4 to help ensure all voters’ ballots will be postmarked by Election Day. Under state law, ballots that aren’t postmarked by Nov. 8 won’t be counted.

She said the Auditor’s Office was following new guidelines from the U.S. Postal Service recommending that elections officers tell voters to mail ballots back a week before the due date. The new guidelines were prompted by the Postal Service’s slower delivery speeds, and reports of missing or illegible postmarks on ballots across the country.

State elections officials said they too are advising that voters mail ballots back four days early.

Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer working for the Washington State Democrats, said at Thursday’s news conference that the problem was the language on the Pierce County ballot insert didn’t come across as a recommendation, but as a requirement.

“It doesn’t say ‘best if,’ or, ‘you would be well advised to’ .... It says ‘Mail by (Nov. 4),’ ” Hamilton said.

According to Washington law, “The voter must be instructed to either return the ballot to the county auditor no later than 8:00 p.m. the day of the election or primary, or mail the ballot to the county auditor with a postmark no later than the day of the election or primary.”

The Democrats’ complaints dealt only with a yellow insert that accompanied ballots when they were mailed out last week.

The outside of the Pierce County ballot return envelope included instructions that ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, not the earlier date of Nov. 4. The election date of Nov. 8 was also printed on the ballots, while the Election Day postmark deadline was explained in the county voter pamphlet.

As county auditor, Anderson is nonpartisan. Earlier this year, she endorsed the re-election campaign of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who is seeking a second term as the state’s top elections official.

Podlodowski, Wyman’s Democratic opponent in the race, has been intensely critical of the ballot inserts Anderson’s office sent out, and also lashed out at Wyman for her office’s support of the message to mail ballots four days before the election.

At Thursday’s news conference, Ravens said the threatened lawsuit against Anderson had nothing to do with the secretary of state’s race.

“I think the partisan element to this is that the Democratic Party stands very strongly for voter protection and voter enfranchisement,” he said.

Asked whether county elections officials have a responsibility to advise voters to mail their ballots early, given some of the recent problems reported with postmarking and mail delivery, Ravens replied, “Not really.”

“We’ve been promoting the fact that people need to vote, get their ballots in as early as possible and we encourage that,” Ravens said. “But the point of this is that voters have up until 8 o’clock on Nov. 8 to get their ballots in, and that is their right.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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