No, you don't need a stamp for your ballot
Let’s repeat that, in case you skimmed over the headline:
Your ballot will be counted even if you DO NOT affix a stamp to the envelope.
So why do those envelopes include an empty square in the upper right hand corner, asking for a stamp? That’s because if you don’t put a stamp on your ballot, the county foots the bill.
In Snohomish, Whatcom and Douglas counties, officials ask that voters use TWO stamps, because their ballots are thicker than those in other counties.
David Ammons, spokesman with the Secretary of State, said no county in Washington state will reject ballots or return them to sender if they lack full postage.
A call to the U.S. Postal Service confirmed that this is a national policy: They will deliver all ballots dropped in the mail from anywhere in the U.S., stamped or not. The postal service keeps track and bills the county.
They take this policy seriously: Stand-up talks are done for mail carriers so they know about it.
In 2015, King County Elections received 36,400 pieces of mail without a stamp or insufficient postage – about 3 percent of ballots. The county paid $48,000 in postage.
After posting this story to Facebook, we heard from several people who said their ballots were returned in past years when they didn't use postage. We called Ernie Swanson, spokesman for the Postal Service for Washington state, who said that surprised him.
“The Postal Service policy is if someone forgets to put a stamp on there, we will keep a record of that and we will send that information to the elections office and they will reimburse us,” Swanson said.
“There could be a few that slip through the cracks due to the sheer number of mail – not just elections mail, but mail in general. But it shouldn’t happen.”
Swanson said several years ago ballots were returned because the envelopes were too thin and showed the voter’s address. The Postal Service accidentally mailed those ballots back to the senders. The elections office redesigned their envelopes to prevent that from happening again.
Swanson said he’d rather the message be that the Postal Service will forward the mail if you forget a stamp. Not that you should forego a stamp.
“We would rather not make it quite that blunt,” he said. “I’m guessing the elections officials would too. It takes it out of their budget. But at any rate, that is the policy.”
Kendall LeVan Hodson, chief of staff for King County Elections, said she was also surprised.
"If anyone took the time to fill out the ballot and mail it in, we want to make sure we count their ballot," Hodson said. "We want to count everyone's ballot, for sure. That's the goal."
Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state, has asked state lawmakers to pay for postage, but it hasn't caught on.
There was some discussion in the KUOW newsroom about whether the stamp was a barrier to voting for some people – and if it could be compared to the poll tax.
The poll tax was part of Jim Crow laws, a requirement that all voters pay roughly $1.50 before being casting their ballots. (That would be between $25 and $50 today.) Because so many poor people in the South were black, the poll tax ended up disenfranchising black people, which was its purpose.
Poll taxes were often part of a larger effort to make sure black people didn’t vote – including literacy and property tests and rules that former prisoners couldn’t vote (sound familiar?).
So there are parallels in broad strokes, but it’s a false comparison. You're not rooting around for a stamp on Election Day because of systemic racism. Also, vote-by-mail was supposed to make voting more accessible.
Whether it’s had that effect is unclear. Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, told ProPublica in 2013 that she found vote-by-mail outdated.
“Is that a true 21st century solution to modernizing our election process, given the fact that fewer and fewer people are using the mail?” MacNamara said. “I’m not sure this is going to be a long-term solution.”