Washington plays ‘dine and dash’ games with county taxpayers over election IOUs

Workers in the Pierce County Election Center process ballots.
Workers in the Pierce County Election Center process ballots. News Tribune file photo, 2018

No one should have to choose between safety and democracy. Your county shouldn’t have to prioritize one over the other.

But that’s what happens every other year, in Pierce County and all across Washington. And that’s exactly what will happen again in 2020 if the Legislature continues refusing to pay its fair share of election costs.

Counties conduct elections on behalf of every level of government – from federal presidential elections all the way to local mosquito control districts.

Washington residents should be confident and proud they have one of the most trustworthy and efficient election systems in the U.S., with an excellent reputation for integrity, accuracy and access.

Achieving this comes with a cost. It’s expensive to modernize and maintain election registration and ballot-counting systems. It’s expensive to provide the highest possible election security. And it’s expensive to conduct elections for 4.4 million registered voters across the state.

Same-day voter registration, more ballot drop boxes and prepaid postage are important additions to help improve voter access. However, they are costly additions that have been mandated by your state legislators.

They are either not funded fully or not funded at all, creating more unfunded mandates for county governments that already struggle to meet other obligations. We must provide health services, law enforcement, courts and a myriad of other statutorily and constitutionally required programs and services.

Who should pay? Nearly every ballot in every election contains a mix of districts – state, county, city, schools, etc. And every participating district pays its fair share of total election cost based on the number of registered voters within its boundary lines.

Every participant, that is, except the State of Washington.

The Legislature has decided to “dine and dash” during even years, when the vast majority of state offices are on the ballot. Despite being given multiple opportunities to do the right thing and change the law, the state instead sticks your cash-strapped county government with the bill.

That’s why your county commissioners and council members are forced to choose between the public safety you need and a democracy you can trust.

When counties are on the hook to pay the entire cost of conducting the state’s elections, it means law enforcement and our criminal justice system, public health and parks are deprived of resources.

As long as the state fails to pay its fair share of state elections, your county will shoulder the burden of these unfunded mandates. County officials will continue to foot the state’s bill while siphoning resources from public safety and quality of life.

Or will they? Election administrators are readying for 2020, looming as the largest and most contentious election in state history. Will counties even be able to backfill the state’s election costs? Is this a risk you want to take?

Now more than ever, we must support secure, transparent and accessible elections. Hundreds of county officials – including all 39 independently elected county auditors and elections directors – asked the Legislature to pass a Fair Share Election Funding bill (House Bill 1291 and Senate Bill 5073).

Instead of stepping up to their responsibility as every school, fire, and park district does, the state continues to refuse to pay its bills, putting our electoral system at risk.

As representatives of the Washington State Association of County Auditors and the Washington State Association of Counties, we urge you to call or email your state legislators and tell them it’s time to pay their fair share of their own elections.

If you don’t know how to reach the lawmakers who represent you, call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or visit www.leg.wa.gov.

Julie Anderson is the Pierce County auditor. Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, represents District 7 on the Pierce County Council.