By: Elizabeth Oswalt
Mail-in ballots have received a lot of attention this election year. Many voters have adopted mail as their preferred method to vote given the health risk presented by voting in person as a result of the pandemic. Washington is one of the only states with an established practice of providing mail-in ballots to all registered voters in addition to in-person voting.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman told NPR that Washington began sending mail-in ballots as a “matter of convenience.” According to her office’s website on the state’s “history of voting and elections,” 2005 officially started statewide mail-in ballots. More than two-thirds of Washington’s counties switched to this method leading up to the 2004 presidential election, which sparked the repeal of in-person voting.
In a 2020 New York Times article, Wyman said Washington transitioned to mail-in ballots by allowing Washingtonians to choose to receive an absentee ballot first. “It took 5 years to get all 39 of our counties to move to vote-by-mail,” she told the Times. The state then began seeing an increased desire for these absentee ballots.
The Washington Secretary of State webpage says Washington ballots are “mailed at least 18 days before each election.” While early dropoff is suggested, ballots can be dropped off as late as eight o’clock on election night.
Busy students benefit from having a quicker option to vote. Hayden Roberts, a 22 year-old business student in Spokane, called the long wait times associated with voting lines in other states a “grotesque abuse of the system.” That isn’t a problem in Washington State, where mail-in voting is universal. “People who don’t have the means to travel hours to a voting facility and people who are incapable of doing so due to age or disability are stripped of their fundamental rights,” said Roberts.
Emily Frint, a 20 year-old communications major living in Spokane, is voting in her first presidential election this year. She appreciates the convenience and safety that being able to mail in her ballot during the pandemic gives her. “It allows for people with physical disabilities to have more of a voice, as well as gives older voters the chance to vote without fear of standing and waiting in long lines.”
Judy Trumbull, 73, has used absentee ballots for years in Washington. Her husband is now 84 and has dwindling health conditions. She said, “Having to stand in line for hours—especially during this pandemic—whether for early voting or election voting seems more of a form of voter suppression than an acceptable way to conduct democratic elections.”
Mail-in ballots make voting easier for busy Washingtonians who would rather avoid driving to voting centers or block out time to stand in line at a polling place.
According to Wyman, a big hurdle for states new to offering mail-in ballot options is creating these policies. “Absentee ballots are something that are requested by the voter, and a vote-by-mail election is something that’s mandated by government or by a legislature,” Wyman told NPR. This makes a difference psychologically for a lot of voters, she noted. Inflamed by unfounded claims by the president, many Republicans worry voting by mail increases the risk of voting fraud. However, Wyman, who is a Republican elected official, says Washington’s use of voter ID at the time of registration since 2006 should put concerns about fraud to rest. Wyman told NPR that in 2018, only “142 people out of the 3.2 million ballots cast” by mail in the state for that election were fraudulent.
David Stedman, an AP government and politics teacher at a Spokane high school, said he loves the state’s mail-in ballots. Stedman argues that states that refuse to implement mass mail-in ballots are trying to suppress voters.
Stedman also predicts many Republican strategies to limit voting, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) decision to only make one ballot drop-off box available per county, will eventually drive voters to Democratic candidates. “Instead of empowering the political parties to pull strings to ‘win,’ we should be looking at ways to empower the people,” Stedman said.
Disclaimer: Judy Trumbull is Elizabeth Oswalt’s grandmother.