I. In Focus This Week
Stamp of approval
Turnout increases under King Co. pre-paid return postage pilot
By M. Mindy Moretti
If you build it they will come, but if you put a stamp on it will they vote?
Signs point to yes, at least as was discovered during a recent pilot in King County, Washington where voter turnout was higher than expected for a special election that featured pre-paid return postage on mail ballots.
Based on previous turnouts, the county predicted about a 30 percent turnout for each of the two jurisdictions participating in the special election, however turnout was 37 percent in one jurisdiction and 40 percent in the other.
“I’m excited to see increased participation,” Julie Wise, King County elections director said in a statement. “When I was elected, one of my commitments was to remove barriers to voting. As we increase access with pre-paid postage and ballot drop boxes, we’re beginning to see a real impact.”
The special election was chosen because it provided small, discrete sample populations.
“Ideally with more than one jurisdiction participating, we also wanted to gain an understanding of whether or not there are significant differences between jurisdictions,” explained Kafia Hosh, communications specialist for the county.
Pre-paid postage can be done two different ways either through Business Reply Mail in which the county only pays for the ballots that are actually returned or with pre-paid postage where the sufficient postage is attached to all ballots and the county pays whether the ballots are returned or not.
King County chose the Business Replay Mail route and postage for the test cost King County $10,140. There were some additional one-time tasks to set up a new business reply mail account, design updated envelope artwork and establish a few new data collection procedures. There were no added steps to the actual processing of ballots.
The elections department used money already in its budget for the postage.
Tammy Patrick with the Bipartisan Policy Center said there are several advantages to pre-paid return postage for ballots.
“Postage can vary from one election to the next depending on the length of the ballot, how many ballot cards are used, the number of inserts, etc.,” Patrick said. “One benefit to prepaying is that the appropriate postage is affixed. Jurisdictions not paying for the return postage are required to notify the voter what the postage will be for each election unless they have an overage account to pay for any ballots lacking sufficient postage.”
Secretary of State Kim Wyman said her office is supportive of any effort to engage the electorate, but there are some reservations about only one county using pre-paid postage because the secretary of state’s office prefers all counties to be consistent in their policies and procedures to avoid voter confusion. Still she was encouraged by the King County pilot.
“There are logistical questions about how the USPS will process pre-paid return ballot envelopes that need to be answered and the King County pilot was instructive about that process,” Wyman said. “Our staff is also working directly with the USPS to better understand how the logistics would work, as well as with U.S. Representative Denny Heck’s office to explore possible federal solutions that might help us implement pre-paid return ballot envelopes statewide. The King County pilot was helpful and we will be closely monitoring their second pilot on this issue in April.”
Because the King County is diverse, both in terms of constituents and geography, Hosh said the April test will be important to show what pre-paid postage looks like in a variety of situations.
“We want to study the outcomes in different elections before making any decisions about permanently implementing pre-paid postage,” Hosh said. “We would also need to work with the King County Council and our local jurisdictions to figure out if this is something we want to fund on an on-going basis.”
If legislation currently being considered is successful pre-paid postage could go statewide. Under SB-5019-2017-18 the state would reimburse counties for the cost of pre-paid postage.
“Our testimony was supportive with the request that the bill be amended to include all elections,” Wyman said. “The bill was subsequently amended to include all elections and we support the language of the substitute bill.”
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