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Details from today’s political dust-up over “costs” of special election to replace Jay Inslee

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on April 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm | No Comments »
April 10, 2012 10:10 am

Why would it cost $1 million to have a special election to fill the final six weeks of Jay Inslee‘s term in Congress?

The answer may be that it doesn’t.

But that wasn’t the first question asked today. That designation went to Washington State Republicans who held a press event at the likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee’s Seattle campaign headquarters. In an event titled “Send Inslee the Invoice,” state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur wants to know why Inslee won’t pay for the election he caused. Wilbur is trying to help the governor campaign of Republican Rob McKenna.

Inslee triggered the issue when he resigned his seat in Congress to devote his time to the campaign for governor. The assumption was that the seat would go unfilled for the final eight months of the year and be filled by one of the people running to replace him in Congress. But Inslee resigned late enough so as not to trigger a stand-alone special election for his unexpired term. instead, whichever candidate won the full, two-year term would have taken office early to fill out Inslee’s unexpired term.

But there is a wrinkle in the law because his old 1st District was dramatically changed by redistricting. Because the voters in the new 1st District aren’t completely the same who made up the old 1st District, a special election must be held in front of a different batch of voters than the election for the full two-year term.

Kind of a mess. Then Secretary of State Sam Reed‘s office announced the election would cost state taxpayers $770.000. In addition, elections officials think they need to educate voters about the confusing pair of elections and asked for $225,000 to send postcards to effected voters. That’s a lot of money any year but sounds especially so when lawmakers are still trying to balance the state budget.

That led to Wilbur’s event and the printing of invoices that demand that Inslee cover the $770,000 election costs (a number that he crossed out at the event and, with the $225,000 postcard costs added in, replaced with $1 million). That, in turn, triggered this response from state Democrats.

“Instead of responsibly planning and budgeting for the special election to fill the vacant 1st Congressional District seat, the McKenna campaign’s Thurston County co-chair, who is also the Secretary of State, released a questionably high cost estimate that wreaks of politics,” wrote Democratic party spokesman Benton Strong. “The conflict of interest is clear.”

While it is odd to suggest that Reed should have planned for and budgeted for Inslee’s resignation, we too wondered about the election cost estimates. There are two different electorates for the unexpired term representing the 1st and the full, two-year term. But the three counties involved are already conducting primary and general elections this summer and fall. They are still mailing ballots, still hiring workers, still programing computers. Why the extra cost.

Katie Blinn, the co-director of elections with the Secretary of state, said there isn’t really an increase in election costs only a change in how those costs are distributed. County elections offices divide the cost of elections among the government entities with matters on the ballot. But state law dictates that the state doesn’t pay anything for state and federal elections held in even-numbered years like this. It only chips in for special elections that are normally held in odd-numbered years and for any election to fill an unexpired U.S. Senate or U.S. House position.

The special election for the 1st seems to have triggered that requirement.

Here’s what Blinn wrote:

Yes, this is a confusing topic. The estimated costs to reimburse the counties are:

Primary Election:
Kitsap County: $35,000
Snohomish: $50,000
King County: $300,000
$385,000

General Election:
Kitsap County: $35,000
Snohomish: $50,000
King County: $300,000
$385,000

Adding this one race to the Primary and General Election ballots does not add $385,000 to the overall costs of the election. The issue is how election costs are billed. The counties are allowed to bill the State for a prorated share of the cost of the election; normally they cannot in an even-numbered year.

RCW 29A.04.410 allows counties to bill cities and local districts (school districts, fire districts, etc.) for their share of election costs.

RCW 29A.04.420 allows counties to bill the State only in odd-numbered years (the anomaly for state and federal offices) and “Whenever a primary or vacancy election is held to fill a vacancy in the position of United States senator or United States representative under chapter 29A.28 RCW…”

The counties use a billing formula established by the State Auditor. It takes the entire cost of an election and divides it by the number of jurisdictions that have a race or ballot measure on the ballot and how many registered voters are in each jurisdiction. The formula does not figure out the incremental cost of each additional race; it does not figure out how much each additional race costs. Otherwise, no jurisdiction would be paying for the base costs of the election.

For example, Snohomish County expects the 2012 Primary to cost approximately $900,000. The prorated share of one race that has approximately 200,000 registered voters is approximately $50,000.

So there are no additional costs other than the postcard mailing. What Blinn’s response seems to indicate is that the costs will be shared by an additional governmental entity. As state costs go up, the costs borne by local governments will go down.

Still, that hasn’t caused the state GOP to change its message. As of this morning Wilbur Tweeted a link to a video that asserts that Inslee’s resignation caused $1 million in additional costs to candidates.

Kirby Wilbur ‏ @KirbyWilbur

RT @wagop: We called on @JayInslee to pay for the $1 MILLION special elex. You should too, watch this video: http://ow.ly/abzYq #wagov

Here is how state GOP spokesman Josh Amato explains the rationale for continuing with the charge against Inslee:

“The fundamental point we’re making is now the state is on the hook for $1 million it doesn’t have because of Jay Inslee. What programs will lawmakers need to cut to cover this cost? 390 kids in all day k is one, approximately 20 teachers. We could send a long list. The point is, the state is out $1 million, now will Jay pay?

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