County auditors want the State to pay its 'fair share' on the price of elections

King County workers count ballots (Photo: KOMO News)

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- It's a fact few people, even politicians know: Every jurisdiction, whether it be a city, town, fire district, school district or water district, must pay its county's election department to get their races and measures on a ballot.

There's one exception- the State of Washington.

State laws says the state is exempt from reimbursing counties the costs of putting state and federal races on ballots during years ending in an even number. State auditors and election officials say those costs are being place on the backs of counties and jurisdictions -- some that can barely afford to put on an election.

"The state is getting a free ride in even years when it's the most expensive," says Julie Anderson, Pierce County Auditor who is heading up a legislative effort of state auditors to change the law.

All races for state officers and the legislature happen on even-numbered years unless there's a special election.

MORE | Updated Primary Election Results

"It's no accident, the year they chose not to fund is the year they are all on the ballot," says Anderson of state lawmakers. "It's unfair."

In odd-numbered years, the state will reimburse counties a prorated share of the election costs, but county election officials say it's a hollow gesture because it's a rare occurrence.

"Often times there aren't state races in an odd year," says Julie Wise, the Director of the King County Elections Department.

Both Wise and Anderson say the result in an unwanted trickled down effect on local jurisdictions subsidizing the costs the state "should be paying for."

Wise says counties are eating some of the costs associated with elections such as printing ballots and voter pamphlets, processing, mailing and counting ballots in those even number years.

County auditors are having to charge local jurisdictions -- many who are operating on bare-bone budgets -- more to have an election.

"We are seeing school districts and fire districts having an impact to their operational funds and budgets to pay for elections that are really the states responsibility," says Wise.

Anderson says it's millions of dollars that could otherwise be going to police or fire services or other direct services that local jurisdictions are required to provide.

"It's an unfunded mandate that's become a burden," says Anderson. "A third grader can understand that you should pay for when you use a service."

A fiscal note presented by statewide auditors to legislators in 2017 estimated the costs to be $9.6-to-$14 million a year. That's money the state should pay if it was paying its fair share, says Wise.

For King County, it would be roughly $4 million for every even-year election. By comparison, that would nearly cover the cost of the August primary, Wise said.

"Auditors across the state are asking for funding for running those elections, just like every other jurisdiction across the state pays for," Wise said.

During the 2017 legislative session, State Senator Sam Hunt sponsored SB 5311 that would have satisfied the auditor's request. It would have required the state to reimburse counties an appropriate pro-rate portion of the election it was involved in.

The bill was never voted on.

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