In an election twist, one of the first states to use mail-in voting for all may have to brace for a wave of in-person voting this year because of a rule change that allows same-day registration.
In a year where many states are resorting to mail-in voting for the first time in order to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Washington was leaps and bounds ahead with its vote-by-mail system already in place.
In 2005, the Legislature passed a resolution to allow mail-in voting and six years later made it a requirement for all counties.
But now, with another rule change from the Legislature in 2019 and effective this year, counties must allow people to be able to register to vote up to the last minute on Election Day.
Elections officials in Walla Walla County don’t necessarily believe they’ll be overwhelmed by same-day registrants, but they’re bracing for it nevertheless.
“We want to be prepared just in case we do have that onslaught of people coming in at the last minute,” County Auditor Karen Martin said.
“Usually, eight days before the election, people who were registering could kind of lay that job aside and go do some of the other work that needs to be done. And now we can’t do that ... Now we’re gonna actually have to have people here staffed, ready to help those people (registrants).”
Inactive voters will be able to register and have a ballot printed on the spot this year. If voters are in line for registration by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 they will be allowed to register, regardless of how long the line is.
The big change to accommodate the extra workers and potential voters was to take the whole elections operation and move it to the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds at the main pavilion building.
Martin said she wanted to make it clear to all voters — there will absolutely be no voting activity at the Walla Walla County Courthouse or the Elections Office.
The pavilion will not only allow for more workers and voters, but also for observers and candidates. Martin said candidates often visit the office on Election Day to watch ballots coming in and the county’s political parties send representatives to observe the ballots being counted.
Martin said anybody “off the street” is allowed to observe the process “to make sure we’re not doing the bad things that people say or think happen.”
She said the department at first considered the Community Building at the fairgrounds, which is currently being used for court proceedings. The idea was that the court operations would be done before Election Day, but Martin had second thoughts on that spot.
“I said, ‘yeah, but what if the courts are not done?’” Martin said. She said she was following the lead of Commissioner Todd Kimball who was emphasizing over and over to department heads to have backup plans in place. “We just want to be prepared ... every presidential (election) year has its nuances.”
The good news for now is that there appears to be a large number of people already registered — 36,335 in the county as of Friday morning. Martin said it’s been hovering around 35,000 active voters for “quite some time,” so this year’s numbers are already slightly up.
It falls in line with a national trend of early voting and registration that could easily reach record numbers in terms of total votes. Already, with more than four weeks until Election Day, more than 9 million ballots have been cast as of Saturday afternoon, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
Washingtonians will start receiving ballots this week. Martin said Walla Walla County ballots will be shipped Wednesday, barring any problems.
However, she said no news from the printers is good news and people can start expecting their ballots within a week from Wednesday.
Martin said if voters don’t get their ballots within that window, they should contact the elections office or visit its location at the pavilion.
Despite the extra space, Martin still expects many people to utilize drop boxes around the county. She said about 60% of ballots in the county are placed in the boxes as opposed to being mailed or turned in at the elections office.
Early voting in Washington begins Friday. The secretary of state’s office is required deliver ballots via mail at least 18 days before Election Day, Nov. 3.
Voters can also register to vote through Oct. 26 at vote.wa.gov.
Ballots must be mailed — or postmarked — by Nov. 3, but the U.S. Postal Service recommends mailing at least a week early, according to the secretary of state’s website.
According to the website, residents should ask their postal carriers or local Post Office what time is best to mail ballots.
However, on Election Day, Martin said she recommends dropping off ballots at a drop box rather than put them in the mail. Drop boxes will remain open to the public until 8 p.m. Nov. 3.
Drop boxes are located at the Walla Walla County Courthouse, Walla Walla Fire Station No. 2, College Place City Hall, Columbia Elementary School in Burbank, Waitsburg City Hall and the Touchet School District building, or they can be turned in at the temporary elections center at the fairgrounds pavilion.