King County knows it wears the crown and doesn’t pretend otherwise. It wields extraordinary power as the home of 30 percent of Washington’s population and an even greater share of its workforce. It holds unrivaled influence from the halls of the state Capitol to the headquarters of Sound Transit.
But when it comes to citizens’ right to vote, King County should dispense no royal privileges. The cost and convenience for a person to cast a ballot should be the same in the greater Seattle area as it is in Tacoma, Tenino or Tonasket.
That’s why we’re disappointed by the King County Council’s decision Monday to pay postage costs for voters within its borders — and why the governor now should intervene to re-balance the scales.
In theory, providing pre-paid ballot return envelopes sounds like a good way to stimulate voter turnout in an era of electoral malaise. Some argue that requiring a stamp purchase is a kind of modern-day poll tax, punitive to low-income people and others in our vote-by-mail state.
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Legislators in several states, including ours, have tried to institute pre-paid election postage broadly and consistently within a state’s boundaries. A Texas congressman has even introduced a national Postage Free Ballot Act.
But none of those proposals has yet gained traction, so the King County Council chose to spend $381,000 on its own — despite concerns from Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman and county election officials including Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson.
Wyman tried to persuade King County to hold out for a statewide system. She says one county going solo will create inequity in the 38 other counties and sow confusion everywhere. Legal action is also a real possibility.
“This decision should not be made in a vacuum because the impacts will not remain in a vacuum,” Wyman said in testimony before the council last week.
Unfortunately, King County leaders went into Hoover mode, voting 7 to 2 Monday to proceed with their vacuuming.
Now that the state’s hand has been forced, it should pay for uniform voter postage across Washington this year. The consequences of inaction would be significant and immediate for King County’s neighbors. In Pierce County, a handful of 2018 elections overlap county lines: the 31st Legislative District, the 8th Congressional District and a U.S. Senate seat.
We’ll let political scientists predict whether more Seattle-oriented candidates will win under the plan adopted Monday. Regardless, King County now offers its voters a preferential incentive, which some counties might match but others can’t afford.
Anderson tells us it would cost Pierce County an estimated $150,000 to cover pre-paid postage in this year’s primary and general elections; she says her office will pick up the tab if the governor doesn’t act by May 17.
But that would only continue a “domino effect” for election districts that cross into Kitsap, Thurston or Mason counties.
“It is inappropriate and unfair to disadvantage voters in any portion of our state,” Anderson wrote in a letter to the governor Monday, co-signed by Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Council Chairman Doug Richardson.
We agree that Gov. Jay Inslee should support Wyman’s funding request of up to $2 million, even though it’s a temporary fix. The Legislature must then follow up with a plan for equitable voter postage in all elections over the next biennium, including the pivotal 2020 presidential election.
Republican state Sen. Joe Fain is working on such a bill, which is no surprise; he’s from Auburn, the community straddling the King-Pierce county border whose voters face disparate treatment under King County’s unilateral move.
The bottom line is that if King voters get free postage, then so should every registered voter in Washington — liberal and conservative, urban and rural, all 4.2 million of them.
Equal opportunity is what distinguishes a democracy from a monarchy.