Submitted by the San Juan County Auditors Office
The long-awaited proposal to annex the Town of Friday Harbor into San Juan Island Fire and Rescue will have to wait a bit longer. It had been slated to be on the April 28 special election ballot. Unfortunately, on Tuesday, March 17, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman formally asked Gov. Jay Inslee to cancel the April special election. She was joined in this request by county auditors across the state, including San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley. The request is based on a concern that the current and potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could jeopardize election officials’ abilities to conduct elections in a safe, accessible and secure manner.
At first glance, one would think that Washington’s vote-by-mail election system is immune from the effects of the pandemic. Ballots are delivered to voters’ homes, and postage is prepaid for returning ballots. Even lost ballots can be replaced online at votewa.gov or by phone call to the local elections office.
But sending and returning the ballots is only half the process. Elections staff must be on hand to register new voters and to satisfy last-minute ballot replacement requests. Returned ballots must be signature-verified, opened, inspected, scanned and resolved for any questions about voter intent. Following the election, a Canvassing Board must meet to review questioned ballots and to certify the election.
If one election worker were to be infected by the virus, all staff who have been working closely with that worker would be quarantined. Staffing levels critical for voter registration, ballot delivery, ballot processing, canvassing, and certification would all be reduced. With San Juan County’s two-person elections office, one exposure could leave the county with no staff to run the election.
Postal and vendor staff could also be reduced, disrupting domestic and international mail service. Postal and other offices across the country have had to shut down for one or more days for cleaning. A shutdown at the wrong time could prevent ballots from reaching the Elections Office in time to be counted.
As a result, counties across the state, including San Juan County, cannot guarantee that they will have adequate resources available to conduct the election.
If the Governor approves the request, as expected, the Town of Friday Harbor and San Juan Island Fire and Rescue may request that their annexation measure to go to the voters in either the August 4 primary or the November 3 general election. Seventeen other counties also had elections scheduled for April 28.