PORT ORCHARD — When you return your primary election ballot through the mail to the Kitsap County Elections Division beginning this week, you’ll save yourself a 50-cent stamp — all election ballots this year will be postage-paid by the state.
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman joined forces to secure funding last May so that voters who return their ballots by mail won’t have to pay postage for the primary and general elections this year.
But whether the practice becomes permanent isn’t certain. The state Legislature will need to pass legislation next session that would make Washington state the first in the U.S. with permanent universal postage-paid voting by mail. Inslee and Wyman said they plan to work together to forge a passable bill with secure funding.
Primary election ballots should have arrived in mailboxes by Friday, July 20, said Steve Gardner of the Elections Division.
Delores Gilmore, Kitsap County’s auditor who oversees the election process, said she remembers only one other time when the county used postage-paid ballot envelopes: “There was a pick-a-party primary way back when, because the size of the ballot was so large, voters would have needed two stamps on the return.”
In that case, Gilmore said the county Election Division didn’t see an increase in voter participation.
“We didn’t see that it made that much of a difference,” she said.
By what means voters intend to return their ballots — by mail, drop box or by voting in-person at the county’s Administration Building — Gilmore is hoping to see voter participation rise above the paltry 35 percent threshold of recent years.
The intent of postage-free envelopes, of course, is to make voting as easy an exercise as possible for voters. Whether the postage-paid envelopes make a significant difference remains to be seen. Gilmore hopes that is the case.
“It could uptick a little bit,” Gilmore said.
“I’m hoping that in the mid-term election, we can get back to a 40 to 45 percent turnout.”
The state’s top election official said even in a competitive, high-visibility 2016 presidential election year, just 35 percent of registered voters participated in the primary election process.
“That’s really low compared to past years, where we hovered around 45 percent turnout. Now, if all of a sudden, the numbers jump up this time around, we can say, well, maybe it is due to that. But it’s really hard to tell.”
Recent primary turnout has been down in the mid-30-percent range, so Gilmore is hedging her bet somewhat because of no-stamp change and the increase in options for voters to return their ballots.
Surprisingly to many, the county’s 22 ballot drop boxes are being used by almost 50 percent of Kitsap County’s approximately 166,000 registered voters who return their ballots. The number of ballot boxes is an increase of seven over a three-year period.
The county auditor believes one of the reasons voters use the boxes is that it doesn’t require a stamp. And it is convenient for people who are on their way to work or running errands.
“I think having additional drop boxes out there has helped,” Gilmore said. “We’ve seen a real increase [in use] over the years. And it’s ticking up every year, so with the increased number of drop boxes in different areas, that could have an impact on the postage-paid issue, as well.”
The reason voters seem to say “meh” when it comes to voting in primary elections has to do with their marquee attraction.
“In a primary, you don’t have any of the state measures [on the ballot],” she said. “And there aren’t any hot topics out there this year.
“So, how are voters going to return their ballots? I think it’s great they have options to do that. So, it’s up to them.”