Auditor asks state to pay its election costs

By Jami Makan

County auditor Debbie Adelstein is asking the state of Washington to pay its fair share of election expenses.

Currently, the state only pays its share of election costs in odd years. However, proposed legislation supported by Adelstein would require the state to pay its share of election costs every year.

The proposed legislation asks the state to pay a proportionate share of elections and recounts, just as local jurisdictions and districts do. Counties bill direct and indirect election costs to different jurisdictions using specific accounting guidelines, and when the state doesn’t pay in even years, the state’s share is absorbed by each county.

“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 your vote at risk,” said an April 24 press release from the Whatcom County auditor’s office.

“The state legislature has decided to ‘dine and dash’ during even years, when the vast majority of their state offices are on the ballot,” continued the press release. “Despite being given multiple opportunities to do the right thing and change the law, the state instead sticks your cash-strapped county government with the bill.”

According to an information sheet released by the Washington State Association of County Auditors (WSACA), the state’s unpaid share of election costs was $9,741,194 in 2014 and $13,675,094 in 2016. This ended up costing Whatcom County an additional $383,770 in 2014 and $398,843 in 2016. Figures were not available for 2018.

“We’ve been asking for this change for 25 years, and there has been no progress,” said Julie Anderson, WSACA legislative committee co-chair. “Once the state has gotten used to skipping the bill, it’s hard to get them to do the right thing. It’s hard to change bad habits.”

County auditors like Adelstein are concerned that 2020, which features a federal presidential election, could end up being very costly for Washington’s counties. “2020 is a huge election year, but also a year when the state skips their bill,” said Anderson.

Election costs typically include printing ballots, paying the postage that’s required to mail out ballots, counting ballots, auditing ballots, implementing cybersecurity to keep elections safe, handling customer service calls, operating voting centers and hiring the employees used for all of these functions.

Adelstein’s statement warned that the state’s continued refusal to pay election costs in even years is putting vital public services at risk. “When counties are on the hook to pay the entire cost of conducting the state’s elections, it means that law enforcement and our criminal justice system, public health and parks are deprived of resources,” read the statement. “County officials will continue to foot the state’s bill while siphoning resources away from public safety and quality of life.”

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