Ballot Drop Boxes: More are Needed

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• Topics: Bellingham, Elections,

Four more ballot drop boxes are needed in Bellingham. They can be quickly built and installed in time for the November general election. Any one of three county government departments need to act: the county executive, the auditor, or the council. And they need to act this month, in August. Now. this week. It is urgent.

I have spoken with our auditor and she is adamantly against any more drop boxes - despite the chaos at some boxes and the insufficiency of the present boxes. Why? She told me it is because she thinks with postage-free mailing, the need for drop boxes will decrease.

And she is very, very wrong - by her own department’s numbers. In our primary election on August 4, 65%, almost 2/3rds, of all ballots were returned via the drop boxes. This is an increase of 15% over 2019, which had an increase over the 2018 drop box use. Paid postage on ballots started with the 2018 primary, so the trend is going the opposite direction of the auditor’s thinking.

Here is the setup. There are 18 drop boxes in Whatcom County, with 14 in the rural areas and small towns, and four in Bellingham. Half of our county’s voters live in Bellingham, so they are already under served. But it gets worse. Two of the four are located on college campuses, at Western and the community college. They are out of the way, away from drive up or even parking. Even the auditor’s website directions to the drop box at Western will direct you, in error, to the other end of the campus. These two drop boxes are for students and are seriously inconvenient for the rest of us.

Ballot Drop Box locations in Whatcom County
Ballot Drop Box locations in Whatcom County

So, Bellngham has two useable drop boxes - one at the courthouse and the other at the Sehome Village Shopping Center. The logic of no more drop boxes in Bellingham quickly fades.

For years, I promoted to our previous auditor that Bellingham needed more drop boxes, but she also adamantly refused to place them. I did not write about it, but it bothered me. It was almost making it easy for our Republican leaning rural areas to vote while making it difficult for Democratic leaning Bellingham voters to get their ballots to a drop box. Well, if you think that a divisive statement, then come up with another rational for this abject disconnect between the need for and lack of drop boxes for half the county’s population. Regardless of motivation, this is the end result.

Furthermore, the United States president admits he is trying to slow down mail delivery to hamper voter turnout - in the belief that higher voter turnout favors liberal candidates. And thus more voters are making sure they use a drop box to ensure their vote is counted.

Is the mail getting slower? We have one ongoing test. The Whatcom Watch is mailed to subscribers each month. In the past it arrived in two to four days of being mailed. On July 31 the August Watches were mailed. I did not receive mine until August 16, and according to Bill McCallum of the Watch, some subscribers had still not received their copies by Thursday, Aug 20. What happened? Who knows. They got stuck somewhere in the postal system. The point is that the reductions in mail processing in Seattle have already impacted the delivery of mail in Bellingham. Even mailing a week before the election might not be sufficient. Thus, voters are dropping their ballots in the drop boxes.

A side note on our postal service. Our Constitution directs Congress, in Article 1, Sec 8, “To establish Post Offices and post Roads;” just as it also directs, “To provide and maintain a Navy;” We do not expect our Navy to turn a profit, it is a need for our country. So too, should be the postal service - it is a service, not a business, hence the name. It is a need for a civilized nation.

Before Congress last week, the new postal director promised to stop removing mailboxes and mail sorting machines until after the election. He promised this after slating nearly 700 sorting machines to come offline by Aug 1, with directions not to re-install them before the election. He promised to give ballots priority attention. Well - this is a Trump appointee promising. These promises are worth absolutely nothing. This director could be fired in September and replaced by someone who will slow down the mail. This sort of action is routine with this administration.

So. Many ballots may be stamped late and not counted. Even with an election day postmark, many ballots may not be delivered for a week or more until after the auditor’s legal deadline for accepting and counting ballots. We are in a setup. We cannot depend on the U.S. Postal Service. Yet the auditor is trying to force us to do just that.

We need four new ballot drop boxes at each of the four corners of Bellingham. As I wrote on Aug 1: “Four new drop boxes: one at I-5 and Fairhaven Parkway; one on Lakeway, perhaps at Yew Street; one on Northwest Ave, perhaps at Birchwood Ave; and one near Sunset Drive or Barkley Village. Those would work, although maybe those locations can be improved on. They are needed. And there is time before the general election.”

Some may say people should vote earlier - days earlier. I say, ‘Why’? We used to all vote on a single day - Election Day. We now need sufficient drop boxes to allow us to vote when we want. Especially when even voting two weeks ahead of the election might still result in our ballot not being counted if mailed with our postal service.

The auditor has told me the Sehome drop box will be replaced with a larger capacity box. That fails to address the problem. Look at the photo. Over 30 cars are lined up and waiting, up to 10 minutes, to drop off their ballots. People abandoning their cars and running over to drop off their ballots. We are not a third world nation. We should have infrastructure for voting. Drop boxes are not budget busters. A little secret: The county auditor representative did the right thing on the evening of Tuesday, Aug 4, - he kept taking ballots after 8 p.m. - until about 10 past 8 p.m. - from the many voters who had been in line for up to 10 minutes. He did the right thing. He should not have to violate the law to enable honest citizens to vote. This is chaos in the making. It will be worse on November 3, in the dark, more people voting, and probably in the rain. Chaos.

Fourteen drop boxes for 80,000 rural voters and two usable drop boxes for 70,000 Bellingham voters. Absurd.

In closing. Gentle reader, contrary to what many believe, publishing an article does not have any impact on elected officials. They will wait to see if this article has any impact with you, the citizens of Bellingham. Unless you let county officials know that you take this article seriously and they should also, nothing will happen. In 25 years of writing on this website I have learned that. All I can do is inform you. If you think we need more ballot drop boxes then you have to take the message to Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick, or Executive Satpal Sidhu, or the County Council through your district representative. I’ve done my research, spent many hours over weeks on this, and now this issue is in your hands. That is how democracy works with a free press. Time is short. We need more ballot drop boxes now.

Diana Bradrick, Whatcom County Auditor, phone: 360 778-5105 email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Satpal Sidhu, Whatcom County Executive, phone: 360 778-5200 email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Whatcom County Council, phone: 360 778-5010 email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

James Loucky

Aug 22, 2020

Uncertainties about possibilities for having a free and fair election are growing, amid threats to curtail or even disband the post office, not to mention a continuing pandemic. Action on the part of the Whatcom County auditor and the County Council is essential.

We need more than only two readily accessible drop boxes in Bellingham (downtown and on Western’s campus, which is effectively closed). It is likely that growing numbers of voters will opt to drop off ballots, since there is little certainly that mailed ballots will be considered in time to meet the Nov 3 deadline.
 
Voting is a civic duty. Ensuring that voting is feasible, without required long waits or other hassles, is a vital County responsibility. Please add boxes in areas that can accommodate voters, such as along Lakeway and on either Northwest or Sunset avenues.
 
James Loucky
Bellingham
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Dick Conoboy

Aug 22, 2020

I sent the following msg to the County Auditor…

John Servais brings up some excellent points here.  We cannot depend on the USPS at this time.  I live in the city and mail delivered to my home in the Samish Neighborhood is erratic.  Often mail that is pictured in my daily USPS Informed Delivery email is further delayed for a day or more.  I waited, like John, for two weeks for the delivery of my issue of Whatcom Watch.

More ballot boxes for Bellingham!  A few more boxes will not break the bank and the goodwill will come back to the county government when it is time for citizens to vote. 

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Bill McCallum

Aug 22, 2020

At the general election last year, there were 18 drop boxes in the county.

The four drop boxes in Bellingham received 34,206 (52 percent) of the ballots returned, 28,162 ballots (42.84 percent) were left at the Courthouse and Sehome. Only the drop box in Lynden 8,878 (13.52 percent) receive more ballots than Sehome 7,641 (11.58 percent). The other 13 boxes received less than Sehome.

Four of the drop boxes (Sumas, Custer, Point Roberts and Acme) received a combined total of 1,796 (2.73 percent) of the ballots returned.

Why are the residents of Bellingham getting a short shrift when it comes to ballot boxes?

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Satpal Sidhu

Aug 25, 2020

John,

I discussed this matter with County Auditor Diana Bradrick. We both have received numerous emails on the subject to add four more Ballot Boxes in Bellingham. Following is the reply from Diana. Somehow  my password change did not allow me to post it directly.  Please post this as reply to the article or publish this as a new item as reply from County Auditor and County Executive.

Dear Bellingham Residents

 Thank you for reaching out with your concerns regarding ballot drop boxes.  We actually have 18 ballot drop boxes in the county including the one inside the courthouse.  To provide some context regarding placement, state statute specifies one box per 15,000 registered voters in the county, one in each city, and one in every Census Designated Place with a post office.  Those specific requirements were adopted into statute three years ago with the intent to ensure geographic coverage.  At the time the statute was adopted Bellingham already exceeded the requirements with the exception of the CDP placement.  Originally boxes were placed geographically so voters had approximately the same distance to travel to get to the nearest box and with consideration to placing one in each city.  When I started in 2012 there were, I believe, 12 boxes with six more added since then including one in Sehome, three for compliance with statutory requirements for CDP placement, and the boxes on the college campuses which the students paid for and sited but which are available to the general public.

 I appreciate the concerns about the trustworthiness of the postal service given the recent articles.  However, while it sounds simple to add additional boxes in time for the November election, the reality is that ballot box vendors have no inventory in stock and require three to four months lead time for purchase due to manufacturing constraints.  Additional time is required to get the boxes installed.  Those constraints make it impossible to add more boxes before the election.

 I understand your skepticism regarding USPS, however I’d like you to be aware that the state County Auditors have met with the Secretary of State and Federal and State postal representatives.  We have been assured that election mail will be treated with the same priority it always has been.  However, voters do have access to the current drop boxes and at their highest use 78% of voters returned ballots using the existing boxes.  This past election 65% of ballots were returned via drop box, the majority returned Sunday through Tuesday of election week.

 I hope this addresses your concerns about deliberate voter suppression.

 Diana Bradrick, Whatcom County Auditor, 360-778-5105, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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John Servais

Aug 25, 2020

Satpal and Diana,

I, and am sure all readers, appreciate your responding and explaining this issue from your perspective.  Dialog helps us all to either come closer to the truth or to come closer to what is appropriate action.  We might still disagree in the end, but having relevant perspectives and all the facts in public view is the goal.  

There are several points that I take issue on and will be writing a new article in reply - hopefully today, but as soon as I am able.  The Auditor does have my requests for simple imformation - which I first queried her about three weeks ago.  I was happy to wait until the election was certified on Aug 18 as her department was busy.  But the delay now seems absurd and even a bit like stonewalling.  The Monday morning after the above article posted, I received some of the basic information, but not all.  Any reporter needs facts before they can write.  

My request, for readers to know, is for the ballot pickup stats for the drop boxes, which is logged by the Auditor staff and complete as of August 4, and also the Canvasing Board report - a document that should be on the Auditor’s web pages but seems to not be there. 

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Thomas Gilmore

Aug 26, 2020

To John Servias,

Thank you for your excellent analysis and coverage aout the need for more voter drop boxes in Bellingham.  The auditor seems to think that 4 drop boxes for Bellingham’s 70,000 votes vs. 14 drop boxes for the the counties 80,000 voters is a fair, balanced and equitable distribution.  Auditor Bradrick did respond to my email and she argues that it too late to order voter drop boxes.  This maybe true. Please see this link:

https://www.fastcompany.com/90538856/perfectly-safe-wildly-underused-the-ballot-box-epitomizes-all-thats-wrong-with-the-2020-election

What Bradrick fails to mention is the Bellingham Technical College’s Welding Program which could produce a dozen voter ballot boxes.  From the BTC web site:

Welding and Fabricating TechnologyAny industry that creates goods and structures from metal will rely on skilled welders to create strong products, whether in aerospace, automotive, or construction fields. Turning ideas and materials into valuable products takes highly skilled employees who are trained in such specialized areas as welding technology.

I am certain that there are local locksmiths who could fit the boxes with locks.

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John Servais

Aug 26, 2020

Thomas, excellent points. I am working on a followup article for today and will incorporate your points.  I phoned the company that built our present boxes and learned that indeed, they cannot delivery boxes in time for us now because so many other counties have ordered extra boxes because of the purposeful postal service slowdown.  But contrary to what our Auditor says is “normal” time for delivery of 3 to 4 months, the normal in one month, so the facts are being skewed in favor of her prefered action or non-action.  In a phone call with another reader, she cited $4-5K per box as the cost of purchase and installation. OK, that is about right. The boxes are $2,500 from the manufacturer and are simply cemented into a concrete base.  Fine. This is for the protection of our voting system.  Spend $20,000 on an investment that will last many years.  

Anyway, yes, if there is a will then there is a way.  If one does not want to do something then one can find many flimsy excuses to avoid action. And that is what we have with our Auditor in this situation.  She simply sees no problem.  

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John Servais

Aug 26, 2020

It seems someone in our county Auditor office reads this website.  They have corrected the directions to the ballot drop box on Western’s campus.  The larger question remains - why was this left in error and not checked up on by staff long before?  Well, simple answer is mistakes happen.  And I agree.  But what we need is for our public officials to also agree and not be so certain of all they do.  And we citizens need to feel more empowered to speak up to our elected officials even when they use cock sure statements to try and put us back in our supposed places.  I am working on an update article and hope to post it early this afternoon.  

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