Writings and observations

Washington goes all vote-by-mail

Not a huge practical change for most voters, since nearly all have been voting by mail anyway in the last few elections.

But the vote-by-mail system hasn’t been uniform across the state until now. Today, that changes, and Washington joins Oregon in that (we believe more advanced) system.

From a statement by Secretary of State Sam Reed:

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday signed Senate Bill 5124, requiring all counties to use the popular vote-by-mail system. As a practical matter, it won’t be a change for most voters, since 98 percent of the statewide vote is now conducted by mail. It will, however, mean that Pierce County, the lone holdout, will need to end use of polling places.

Vote-by-mail gained traction incrementally in Washington. In 1993, the Legislature authorized voters to sign up for permanent absentee voting, meaning a ballot would be sent out automatically for each election. Well over half of the electorate eventually signed up. That same year, a new law authorized nonpartisan primary elections to be handled by mail.

In 2005, six years ago, counties were allowed to decide whether to switch to all vote-by-mail, with the decision to be made by the County Auditor and the County Commission or Council. Counties soon signed up, with some also holding public advisory votes. King, representing 1 voter in 3, was the last major county to switch. That left Pierce as the lone outlier; the County Executive and Auditor supported the change, the County Council did not.

For several sessions, the Legislature declined to mandate that Pierce join the rest of the state, citing the state’s tradition of local control. As more and more Pierce voters themselves switched and as the participation rate for pollsite voters lagged and the price tag rose, Secretary of State Sam Reed, Auditor Julie Anderson, Executive Pat McCarthy, County Auditors and others again turned to Olympia for help. Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, sponsored the bill and it passed both chambers.

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