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How Washington State Holds Its Elections by Mail

As the Trump Administration escalates its campaign to gut the U.S. Postal Service and discourage voting by mail, Washington’s Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, has emerged as an advocate for mail voting. After a particularly inflammatory tweet in which President Trump suggested delaying the November election, Wyman released a statement inviting Trump to Washington State to “see firsthand” what safe and secure mail voting looks like.

Wyman is an expert on the voting-by-mail process. A Republican who has served as Washington’s secretary of state since 2013, she has spent much of her tenure insuring the safety and fairness of elections in one of the five states that conducts almost all of its voting by mail. Recently, she has been taking calls from leaders in other states because mail-in ballots are expected to reach record numbers across the country over the next three months.

I recently spoke with Wyman by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed her biggest concerns about states quickly ramping up mail voting, what she thinks is really going on with the Postal Service, and why she remains a member of the Republican Party.

How did you become an expert on voting by mail? When was your first exposure to it, and what has Washington tried to do with it?

I actually was a local election official before I was secretary of state. I started in 1993 as the election director here in Thurston County, and that was the year that our legislature allowed any voter to become what we call a permanent absentee voter, where they could have that ongoing absentee status indefinitely. I got to be part of the ramp-up of that, and our county really promoted absentee voting and vote-by-mail elections, and we were also granted the authority to run certain elections by mail. So, by the late nineteen-nineties, our county was pretty ingrained with doing vote-by-mail elections and heavy absentee voting.

Then we had the closest governor’s race in the country’s history, in 2004. That was when our state really realized that about sixty per cent of our voters were voting by mail every election, because they were permanent absentee voters, and we couldn’t do both kinds of elections well. We couldn’t do a full absentee election and a full site election at the same time, and so our legislature, in 2005, allowed for counties to move to vote-by-mail elections if they wanted to. Most of our state did, including my county, and then it took our state another five years to really completely move over to vote by mail, in 2011.

What do you see as the advantages of voting by mail, generally? Putting aside the pandemic for a minute, what is it about the system that you think is good for people?

It’s very convenient. It empowers voters because they can choose when and where they want to vote. If they want to vote at their kitchen table or in their car, or wherever it is, they can do that, and they can do it on their own time. If you have someone that’s working a shift or has trouble getting to the polling place because they have three kids—and they have to run kids to soccer practice and cook dinner and all—it gives them a wider time period to be able to vote. I think that’s huge.

When you build a system, like Washington’s, that has a really good balance of access and security, you inspire confidence that it’s a well-run election. I think that’s what we’ve really done in the nearly sixteen years since that governor’s race—being able to put in those control measures, like checking every signature on every return envelope against the signature on the voter-registration record. We certainly have our critics, like anyone does. When you actually walk them through the process and the accountability that’s happening, it’s harder for them to make the case for voter fraud, for example, or even voter suppression.

I know it’s hard to compare election to election, but do you have some sense of what voting by mail does for turnout?

For big elections, like the Presidential-year elections or high-profile elections, like 2018, I don’t think vote by mail really makes a huge difference. I think we’re always within the top six to ten states in the country in any given election for turnout. But where it really makes a huge difference is in odd-year local elections. Those nonpartisan races for city and town councils, for fire commissioners, school-board members—quite frankly, the very positions that really do affect people’s daily life. That’s where we see a real surge in turnout compared to other states, and I think that that’s really the strength of vote by mail.

What would you be advising your counterparts in other states who are ramping up?

I’ve actually been giving a lot of this advice to my colleagues. The biggest one is: really look at the capacity and capability of your local election officials to be able to deal with the high volumes that they’re going to see. We certainly saw, in primary elections across the country this spring and summer, that you’re going to see maybe a fifty-to-seventy-five-per-cent increase in the number of absentee ballots you’re going to process. So it’s really important that you have that capacity.

Second is to have the controls in place. So, how are you going to verify that the ballots that were returned were returned by the voter they were issued to? In our state, it’s with the signature verification. Then, how are you going to have the control measures to account for all those ballots? One of the things we learned in 2004 is that you have to be very accurate. You have to be able to, at the end of the election, account for every single ballot that was returned and be able to tell a voter whether or not it was counted. And if it was rejected, why it was rejected.

That takes a lot of security and control measures and chain-of-custody things. Then, beyond that, just being consistent. Most states have multiple counties or local municipalities that actually conduct their elections. They need to make sure that they are being incredibly consistent in the way that they handle voter-intent issues. How are they dealing with a voter who circles the names of the candidates on the ballot rather than filling in the oval?

Mail votes or absentee votes get rejected at a higher rate than in-person votes. Why is that? Is the crucial thing there voter education and having time to mail the ballots in?

Oh, absolutely. I think voter education is really the critical element. What we found when we started doing vote-by-mail elections in the nineteen-nineties is there are two big reasons that ballots were rejected. The first one was a late postmark. In our state, you have to have the ballot postmarked before Election Day. So there were late postmarks—people throwing them in a blue mailbox on Election Day, after that final pickup, and thinking that that was good enough. And then the other one is signature matching—either voters forgetting to sign their ballot envelope entirely, or the signature on the envelope not matching the signature on file.

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