One of the most important functions of County government is running elections. Our democracy functions best when our elections reflect the will of all of the people, in the form of an informed electorate. We have a responsibility to the public to eliminate barriers to voting. I am proud to say, at a time when many jurisdictions are making it more difficult to vote, King County has been continually working to make it easier for as many eligible voters as possible to participate in our elections.
This week, I was proud to sponsor a motion that was approved unanimously by the County Council that will enhance our ability to make voting more accessible to all of our residents. The motion added flexibility to when and where Elections will establish Accessible Voting Centers for voters to cast ballots in person.
Since 2008, the County has required three Accessible Voting Centers for each election, to be located in: Elections headquarters in Renton for the 20 days prior to the election, Union Station in downtown Seattle for the four days prior to the election; and Bellevue City Hall for the four days prior to the election. These centers are temporary locations, staffed by elections workers, where people can vote in person and receive special assistance if needed due to disability or other reason.
There was a time when these Accessible Voting Centers were heavily used. I can remember an election in Bellevue in 2010, right after the change to mail-in ballots, when we had hundreds of people using the Accessible Voting Center in city hall.
That time, however, has passed. Now, we have fully shifted to vote by mail. We have 43 ballot drop boxes around the county, and we have an online ballot program which allows voters to mark, review and print their ballots at home. The demand for in-person and assisted voting has simply declined to the point where having these centers is not widely needed, not widely used and not at all efficient. In our 2016 elections, for example, operating fixed Accessible Voting Centers cost from about $100 to over $1300 per voter served.
The old policy requiring Accessible Voting Centers also led to some silly outcomes. For example, there will be a special election that affects only voters in Vashon Island in April. Under our old legislation, Elections will be required to open and staff three Accessible Voting Centers in Renton, Bellevue and Seattle, even though the vast likelihood is that not a single voter will use any of those three locations.
Under the newly-adopted policy, Elections can use their limited resources much more effectively. They will still operate one standard Accessible Voting Center at its headquarters in Renton during the 18 days prior to elections, as required under state law. The Director of Elections, Julie Wise, will have authority to open other centers as necessary in locations that make sense. For special elections, the need for additional AVCs would be determined in consultation with the jurisdictions participating in the special election. For primary and general elections, the need for additional AVCs would be determined “in a manner that maximizes resources and most effectively serves county residents,” and in consultation with the Disability Advisory Committee, the Citizens’ Elections Oversight Committee, and participating jurisdictions.
Under this new policy, Elections could open an Accessible Voting Center on Vashon Island for a special election on Vashon Island, instead of being required to open two in Seattle and Bellevue. They will be able to redirect resources to be more responsive to voters with special needs – for example, they plan to use portable equipment to bring in-person voting to places where it is most needed for those who need assistance voting due to disabilities or any other reason.
To me, this legislation is a will be great for voters across King County. It enables Elections to respond to more efficiently manage staff and resources, while enhancing the level of service provided to the public. I will continue to keep an eye out for opportunities like this in the future to improve the way our government works.