— from Milene Henley, County Auditor —
- The second in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The County Auditor administers elections and voter registration in the County. View first article in series HERE.
I’m asked a lot of questions about elections. One of the most frequent – often said with a tinge of nostalgia – is Why does Washington vote by mail? Washington is an all vote-by-mail (VBM) state. In 2005, the Legislature authorized VBM for all elections in all counties, at the county’s discretion. Over the next 6 years, almost all Washington counties chose to switch from poll site voting to VBM. In 2011, driven by the lower costs and higher turnout under VBM, the Legislature made VBM mandatory for all counties.
We weren’t the first, by the way: Oregon converted to all vote-by-mail following a citizens’ initiative in 1998. Colorado was the third and so far last state to adopt all VBM, by legislative action in 2013. California is talking about it.
Another question I hear a lot is why do we have so many elections? Currently, elections can be held up to four times a year – not counting the Presidential Primary, which occurs only every four years. “Special” elections may be held in February and/or April, at the request of any district wanting to run a ballot measure. (A ballot “measure” is any question a jurisdiction puts before the voters, most often levy issues.) It used to be worse: until 2011, special elections were allowed in February, March, April and May. Special purpose districts (schools, fire districts, hospital districts, etc.) often prefer to run their measures at special elections, rather than during the primary and general elections, because they believe the measures get more attention if they’re not competing with state and county issues and races on the ballot.
Do districts have to pay for elections? Jurisdictions other than the State must reimburse the County for the cost of elections. Since many costs are pooled, the cost of an election shared with other districts is less than the cost of a one-district election. But an election with a positive result is worth a lot more than one which fails, so district commissioners must weigh the cost of a single-measure election against the probability of success, and choose the strategy that makes the most sense for that district.
Why are some races run with only one candidate? Candidates “file” for election – that is, sign up to be a candidate – in May. If more than two candidates file for a single position, the field will be narrowed to two in the primary (August) election, and the final winner will be elected in the general (November) election. Partisan races – those in which the candidates may declare a party preference – by law, will be on the August ballot even if there’s only one candidate. Nonpartisan races appear on the primary ballot only if there are more than two candidates. (In San Juan County, all positions are nonpartisan except for the Prosecuting Attorney.) All candidates appear on the November ballot, whether there are one or two candidates. All of these rules are mandated by state law.
When do ballots go out, and when must they be returned? Ballots in our vote-by-mail system must be mailed to voters at least 18 days prior to the election; ours are typically mailed 20 days prior. Ballots for military personnel and citizens living abroad are mailed 30-45 days before Election Day.
Once voted, ballots must be either postmarked by Election Day or dropped in a ballot box by 8 pm on Election Day. If travel or mail delays make neither possible, ballots can be obtained and returned by fax or email. However, for most voters, a “wet” signature – that is, a hard copy of the voter’s signature with the standard declaration language – must be received in the elections office by the day before certification, in order for electronically delivered ballots to be counted.
More on Washington signatures and declarations in my next article.