This is a column submitted relating to Tuesday evening adoption by the Whatcom County Council of a resolution supporting that the state pay its “fair share of funding for election expenses.” County Executive Jack Louws and County Auditor Debbie Adelstein also support this statement, as well as the Washington State Association of County Auditors.
No one should have to choose between safety and democracy. Your county shouldn’t have to prioritize one over the other. But that’s what happens every other year. And that’s exactly what will happen again in 2020 if the Washington State Legislature continues to refuse to pay the state’s fair share of election costs.
Counties conduct elections on behalf of every level of government, from federal presidential elections all the way to local mosquito control districts. Washington State residents should be confident and proud that they have one of the most trustworthy and efficient election systems in the United States, with an excellent reputation for integrity, accuracy and access.
Achieving this unparalleled election system comes with a cost. It’s expensive to modernize and maintain election registration and ballot-counting systems. It’s expensive to provide the highest possible election security. And it’s expensive to conduct elections for 4.4 million registered voters across the state.
Same-day voter registration, more ballot drop boxes and pre-paid postage are important additions to help improve voter access. However, they are costly additions that have been mandated by our state legislators. They are either not funded fully or not funded at all, creating more unfunded mandates to county governments that already struggle to meet other obligations in providing public health services, law enforcement, courts and a myriad of other statutorily and constitutionally required programs and services.
Who should pay? Nearly every ballot in every election contains a mixture of districts, such as state, county, city, schools, etc. And every participating district pays its fair share of the total election cost based on the number of registered voters within its boundary lines. Every participant except for the State of Washington, that is. The Washington State Legislature has decided to “dine and dash” during even-numbered years, when the vast majority of state offices are on the ballot. Despite being given multiple opportunities to do the right thing and change the law, the state instead sticks cash-strapped county governments with the bill.
That forces county commissioners (executives) and council members to choose between the public safety people need and a democracy they can trust.
Then counties are on the hook to pay the entire cost of conducting the state’s elections, it means that law enforcement and the criminal justice system, public health and parks are deprived of resources. So long as the state fails to pay its fair share of state elections, your county will shoulder the burden of these unfunded mandates. County officials will continue to foot the state’s bill while siphoning resources away from public safety and quality of life.
Or will they? Election administrators are readying for 2020, looming as the largest and most contentious election in Washington State’s history. Will counties even be able to backfill the state’s election costs? Is this a risk you want to take?
Now more than ever, we must support secure, transparent and accessible elections. Hundreds of county officials — including all 39 independently-elected county auditors and elections directors — have asked the Washington State Legislature to pass a Fair Share Election Funding bill (House Bill 1291 and Senate Bill 5073).
Instead of stepping up to their responsibility as every school, fire and park district does, the State of Washington continues to refuse to pay its bills, putting citizens’ vote at risk.
Let your voice be heard on this issue and tell your legislators to stop putting our electoral system at risk. As representatives of the Washington State Association of County Auditors and the Washington State Association of Counties, we in Whatcom County government urge you to call or email your state legislators and tell them it’s time to pay their fair share of their own elections. If you don’t know how to reach the lawmakers who represent you, call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or visit www.leg.wa.gov.