File photo by Marcy Stamper
Twisp Public Works staff installed the ballot drop-box in Twisp last year, one of four existing boxes. A new state law requires a total of 16 drop-boxes throughout the county.

New ballot box requirement adds unexpected costs

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County, bigger than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware — and with a population density of fewer than eight people per square mile — is anticipating a financial burden from a new state law that requires a ballot box in every city, town and census-designated place with an official U.S. post office. The law requires 12 boxes in addition to the four already in place.

“I sat down with Google Maps and outlined where the boxes would have to be placed, and it came to more than 400 miles round-trip,” Okanogan County Auditor Laurie Thomas remembers telling auditors at a conference this summer. “My fellow auditors just gasped.”

The costs for these boxes go beyond the purchase and installation, since there are strict rules to ensure ballots are secure. Each box must be unlocked for the 18-day voting period, and then locked precisely at 8 p.m. on Election Day, said Thomas. State law requires at least two people to empty the drop-boxes and transport the ballots. The law specifies that the boxes be emptied periodically to prevent overflow.

Thomas said the county would need more than one team, adding significant costs in staff time, so that it wouldn’t be two days after Election Day before all ballots were collected. If county vehicles aren’t available, the county reimburses people 50 cents per mile, she said.

While smaller counties may have to add just one or two boxes, to place a box in an area with a low population doesn’t make sense, said Thomas. “I’m a big believer in the drop-boxes, but let’s be sensible,” she said.

For the existing ballot boxes — in Twisp, Pateros, Tonasket and Omak — the auditor has agreements, usually with a city employee, to open and close the boxes at a precise time. The county pays that person $100 per election, said Thomas.

Methow yes, Carlton no

The new law requires drop-boxes in Methow, which has 144 registered voters (for the entire precinct), and in Loomis, which has 107 voters. Mazama, with 214 registered voters, doesn’t get a box since there is no post office there. Carlton is not on the list because it’s not a census-designated place, even though it has a post office, said Thomas.

Census-designated places are identifiable by name but are not legally incorporated and have no legal status, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Okanogan County has 22,621 registered voters.

The first three boxes in Okanogan County were installed five years ago with a $6,000 grant through the Help America Vote Act. The county commissioners subsequently allocated funds for two more boxes. Twisp got its drop-box last year and one will be installed in Coulee Dam within the week, said Thomas.

Figuring out where to place the boxes is not straightforward. The boxes need a secure location that’s illuminated at night, accessible to the disabled, and under cover or where there’s regular snow removal, said Thomas.

In some cases, the rules prevent placing a box where it would be convenient for voters. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have requested a ballot box at their new government center near Nespelem but, because that’s outside the city limits, the box can’t be located there, even though the building is used regularly and has security and snow removal, said Thomas.

The ballot-box bill was introduced by Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe), who told his Senate colleagues that having to use a stamp to mail a ballot amounted to a kind of poll tax. A recent election had so many candidates and questions that people in some areas had to affix two stamps to mail their ballot, he said.

Thomas said she understands that argument, but compared the cost of a stamp with driving to a drop-box. “I understand the philosophy behind the bill. In a lot of areas, it makes perfect sense. But it’s very harsh for us to go through this expense,” she said.

Washington has no polling places and everyone votes by mail or by taking a ballot to their auditor’s office or to a drop-box.

Auditors opposed

When the law was proposed in January, auditors from several counties testified against it and urged legislators to let them address the issue through rule-making that could take local circumstances into account. An amendment that would have required the state to pay for the boxes and their operation failed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 52 to 45 in the House.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to challenge the Legislature on unfunded mandates,” said Thomas.

The Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) and the Washington State Association of Counties also opposed the bill because of its fiscal impact, according to Timothy Grisham, director of communications for WACO. The two groups urged Gov. Jay Inslee to veto it.

In its analysis of the fiscal impact of the bill, the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) said the bill would increase county expenditures by an “indeterminate amount,” since there are various types of boxes — permanent, temporary and mobile. OFM said the bill would necessitate an additional 257 boxes statewide, with an estimated expense of $1.285 million the first year and ongoing annual costs of $257,000.

Ballot boxes cost from $1,000 to $2,500, with installation ranging from $500 to $7,000, and an average cost of $4,000 to buy and set up a box, according to the OFM analysis.

Initially, legislators thought the only obligation would be to buy extra boxes. By the time they grasped the full financial impact, the bill had already moved through the process, said Grisham.

The law took effect July 23, but Thomas said she’s been told it would be acceptable if local jurisdictions are working toward compliance. She plans to seek funding in next year’s budget to buy half the boxes, and to pay for the rest the following year.

The ballot-box obligation comes as the county is working on its 2018 budget and department heads and the commissioners are looking for savings to balance the budget, said Cari Hall, Okanogan County’s finance manager.