SEATTLE — The Metropolitan King County Council this week voted to make King County the largest local jurisdiction in the nation to conduct all elections by mail, once the infrastructure and management are in place to accomplish it.
The council also appropriated $1,635,446 to initiate the transition.
"Today's decision is the beginning of the process for moving to vote-by-mail — not the end — and we have much preparation work ahead to ensure a smooth transition," said council Chair Larry Phillips. "This council has taken more than a dozen legislative actions over the last three years to reform and improve the performance of our elections section. We have engaged our citizens to advise us and make meaningful recommendations, and we have brought in independent national experts.
"These citizens and experts have identified moving to a consolidated vote-by-mail system as a high-priority action that would allow King County to continue improving the security and effectiveness of our elections operations — the first steps to ensuring voter trust."
Nearly 60 percent of the registered voters in King County are permanent absentee voters, and 81 percent of voters in the 2005 primary used a mail ballot. The current system requires 528 polling locations and close to 4,000 poll workers for a countywide election, plus a full-scale mail ballot processing operation and facility.
The Council's Citizens' Elections Oversight Committee recommended moving to an all-mail ballot to streamline the election system, as did representatives of The Election Center in testimony to the council on March 6. The committee's 2006 report stated that, "Running two separate elections processes (poll voting and mail voting) increases the likelihood of breaches in security and of human errors. As the public holds the elections section more accountable, there is a related responsibility to simplify the inherently complex election process."
Councilor Larry Gossett said the council was confident that a smooth transition would be made to all-mail voting "that will only further increase our citizens' civic engagement in major decisions that are being made at all levels of our government."
However, not everyone on the council was behind the vote-by-mail decision.
Citing a lack of concrete strategic plans and unanswered questions about operating costs and ballot security, four members of the council voted not to support the mandatory vote-by-mail system.
"The elections office admits that all-mail voting will not save money," said Councilor Kathy Lambert. "It probably will cost substantially more because of the staffing needs for the labor-intensive signature verification process and the need to provide regional voting centers for equal access to the disabled. We don't have any estimates yet about how much this change will cost taxpayers."
Councilor Reagan Dunn, who also opposed the decision, agreed with Lambert.
"Fortunately, the amendments put in place today will require the Executive to produce a plan before moving forward," Dunn said. "But all-mail voting is no guarantee of preventing errors in ballot-counting and inappropriate voting. This was demonstrated in the 2004 election, when hundreds of absentee ballots were lost, and mail ballots from felons and dead people were counted inappropriately."
The legislation approved by the council directs the Elections Section to begin the process to implement all-mail elections, once it meets three specific requirements:
• Appointment and confirmation of both a director of records, elections and licensing services and a superintendent of elections.
• Completion of the cultural change and management training recommended by the council's Citizens Elections Oversight Committee and the county executive's Independent Task Force on Elections.
• Council approval of an executive plan for all-mail elections that includes cost estimates, locations and security measures for regional voting centers and ballot drop boxes.
"This move to vote-by-mail will increase voter participation in the election process," said Councilor Bob Ferguson. "That being said, we must hire a new leadership team in the elections section, approve a plan for regional voting centers and complete all necessary systems before we implement all-mail balloting."
The state Legislature in 2005 gave counties the authority to conduct elections by mail. Of the state's 39 counties, 34 have made the decision to conduct all-mail elections.
"Thirty-four of 39 Washington counties have already moved to vote-by-mail, and the vast majority of King County's voters already use mail ballots," said Councilor Dow Constantine. "This legislation responds to this larger trend, while maintaining opportunities for in-person voting."