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Kim Wyman

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

About 45 percent of Cowlitz County voters sat out the 2014 midterm elections, but local voters will have one less excuse if they choose not to participate this year.

For at least this year, the county’s ballot return envelopes will feature prepaid postage in the upcoming primary and general elections, Cowlitz County Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland said Tuesday.

The change comes in response to a King County ordinance overwhelmingly passed last week that funds prepaid postage for its residents in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.

In response to King County’s measure, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of State Kim Wyman announced Tuesday that the state has found funding for prepaid postage on this year’s mail-in ballots for the remaining 38 counties. Wyman’s office will administer the 2018 funding as a one-time grant to all counties that choose to provide prepaid ballot return postage to voters.

Fundingsland said in an interview Tuesday that many county auditors felt it would be unfair if voters in King County — which has about 30 percent of the state’s residents — could mail in their ballots for free while those elsewhere had to pay for stamps.

“We can’t disenfranchise a voter by providing one voter in one county a different opportunity than another voter,” she said. “We were all concerned.”

Fundingsland said she supports fiscally responsible efforts to increase voter participation. But the new effort to boost turnout has its own set of challenges, she said.

The total cost for funding postage for all of the state’s 39 counties is an estimated $1.8 million, but Inslee and Wyman only secured $1.2 million combined. How much of the money goes to Cowlitz County will depend on how many voters return the ballots. It now costs 49 cents to mail a ballot.

Fundingsland said she expects some cash-strapped counties to forego prepaid ballot postage due to budget shortfalls.

In addition, the state has only funded prepaid postage for this year.

Fundingsland said she is concerned about what will happen in future elections if the Legislature fails to permanently fund prepaid ballot postage, as it has done repeatedly in past sessions.

“Here’s the concern: You provide this option to voters for two elections, and now what do we do after that? Do we take it away from the voters?” she said. “There isn’t an easy answer.”

Cowlitz County had already placed an order for Aug. 7 primary ballots, and it could cost up to $5,000 to reprint new ballots with prepaid postage, Fundingsland said.

But Fundingsland said she believes providing voters with prepaid postage on ballots will be worth it because it will help the state assess the effect on voter turnout.

“This is actually a great opportunity,” she said. “I believe in offering this to voters. I just want the state to step up and provide the funding for it.”

Pilot projects conducted by King County election officials during special elections in three cities suggest prepaid postage on ballots does increase voter turnout.

This isn’t the first time Fundingsland has criticized the state for saddling the county elections office with an unfunded mandate.

She sent the state a $5,250 bill this winter for the cost of installing a new state-mandated ballot box in Ryderwood — a retirement a retirement community of 400 people 30 miles from Kelso.

The Legislature last year started requiring each county to install more drop boxes but did not include any additional funding. It will cost the county another $5,800 each year to maintain and service the Ryderwood drop box.

Fundingsland’s request was denied, and she said the Washington Association of County Officials may sue the state over the matter.

“It’s unfortunate it’s gotten to this point,” she said.

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