Voting Rights and the Election
October 26, 2020
The 2020 General Election takes place next week on Tuesday, November 3. The right to vote is a fundamental civil right in our country. Voters are registering to vote and voting early under our state’s voting laws. According to the Washington Secretary of State (SOS), there are now more than 4.8 million registered voters. In 2018, more than 3.1 million voted in the general election. Voter turnout in the August 2020 primary was the highest in Washington since 1964, and turnout is expected to set a record for the presidential election. This article discusses a number of elements of Washington State elections that help keep our elections secure and accessible for everyone.
Mail-In Voting and Voting Centers
Washington State is the second (Oregon was first) of five states in the country (so far) to have all mail-in voting systems where each registered voter receives a ballot in advance of election day. Under RCW 29A.40.010, since 2011, all 39 counties use mail-in voting. Although there are no longer individual polling places, each county has at least one voting center to allow in-person registrations, voting, and requests for assistance. Each voting center must be accessible to persons with disabilities. See RCW 29A.40.160(5).
Pre-Paid Postage for All Ballots
Since 2019, RCW 29A.40.091 requires that return envelopes for ballots include prepaid postage. For this election, the state will reimburse counties for the costs of this return postage. Starting in July of 2021, the cost of pre-paid postage will be shared amongst all jurisdictions participating in each election. See RCW 29A.04.420. These provision help reduce barriers to participation in elections.
Ballot Collection Boxes
Placing a completed ballot in a ballot collection box is an alternative to using U.S. mail. Convenient and secure ballot collection boxes are provided statewide by counties. There are 70 such boxes in King County alone, and more than 500 locations throughout the state. RCW 29A.40.170 requires county auditors to establish “a minimum of one ballot drop box per fifteen thousand registered voters in the county and a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office.” In addition, any county auditor, upon request from a federally recognized Indian tribe with a reservation in that county, “must establish at least one ballot drop box on the Indian reservation on a site selected by the tribe that is accessible to the county auditor by a public road.”
RCW 29A.08.112 provides an alternative to registering to vote with a “traditional residential address.” A voter who lacks a traditional residential address will be registered and assigned to a precinct based on the residential location provided. This location could be a shelter, park, motor home, marina, unmarked home, or other identifiable location that the voter deems to be their residence. A 2019 law clarified that nontraditional residential addresses also include tribal residential locations for voters residing on an Indian reservation or Indian lands.
In addition to online voter registration, King, Pierce, and Thurston Counties have curbside or drive-through voter registration at voting centers this year. See the SOS website.
Overseas and Service Voters
In addition to using mail services, voters who are service members or living overseas, may also return their completed ballots via fax or email. See RCW 29A.40.091(4).
Under RCW 29A.08.170, teenagers who are 16 or 17 years old may sign up to register to vote in advance of their 18th birthday, including when obtaining their Washington Driver’s License as part of “Motor Voter” registration or while in school as part of the annual Temperance and Good Citizen Day in January.
Voter Hubs on Public Universities and Colleges
The state’s public universities, including the research universities University of Washington (UW) and Washington State University (WSU) and the branch campuses in Bothell, Tacoma, Tri-Cities, and Vancouver, the regional universities Central Washington University (CWU), Eastern Washington University (EWU), and Western Washington University (WWU), and The Evergreen State College (TESC) now have nonpartisan student engagement hubs for student voters. Registrations and ballots are available at these hubs. The open days and hours depend on the location. All of these hubs are open on election day through 8:00 pm. See RCW 29A.40.180.
Early In-Person Voting
In addition to our vote by mail system, technically, Washington State has always had early in-person voting. This now extends up until 8:00 pm on election night at each county’s Voting Center. See RCW 29A.40.160.
Ballot Signature Match Follow-Up
As completed ballots are received by the counties, they are processed or canvassed. The processing of each ballot includes checking the signatures placed on the voters’ declaration and comparing with each voter’s signature on file. When there is not an apparent match, or the voter forgot to sign the declaration, contact is attempted with the voter. This is done by mail to the same address that the original ballot was delivered. A record of returned ballots that have declarations with missing or mismatched signatures is updated each day that a county canvasses ballots. All contacts, by phone or mail, and each voter submission of updated information is also recorded. See, RCW 29A.60.165. The record of noncompliant ballots and voter contacts is sent to the SOS within 48 hours then the record will be made publicly available within 24 hours of receipt. Thus, with early voting there are opportunities for voters to remedy a potential barrier to having their votes counted.
Election security measures include audits, random checks, ballot-polling risk-limiting audits, and independent electronic audits of ballot counting equipment. Recent state laws have adopted additional election security practices, including auditing and equipment requirements. See, for example, RCW 29A.60.185.
On the Horizon
In addition to measures already in place to protect and enhance the right to vote, the state legislature will continue to consider new elections laws in future legislative sessions. These may include previously heard but not passed bills about special purpose district elections, ranked-choice voting options, and additional election security measures.
Here are some recent MRSC blogs that address elections, voting, and legislation related to those subjects:
- Elections – What’s New in 2020 (June 2020)
- Seven New Election Laws Promote Citizen Participation, Increase Transparency (2019)
- A Summary of New Laws Addressing Elections in Washington State (2018)
The Washington Secretary of State Elections & Voting home page is the source for state-related election and voter registration information and offers links to additional, county-based sources.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.