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Journalism FTW: Reporter Nails Details of Washington's Special Congressional Election

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[Image courtesy of theblackberryalarmclock]

A fierce and (unsurprisingly) partisan fight has broken out in Washington State about the cost of a special Congressional election to fill the seat vacated by Jay Inslee, who has resigned to seek his party's nomination for Governor. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed has bemoaned the cost of the special election and his concerns have set off a firestorm that has dominated political coverage in the last day or so.

And yet - as is always the case - the full story is far more complicated, and often gets overlooked in the media in favor of the latest round of partisan bickering.

This time, however, at least one reporter - The Kitsap Sun's Steve Gardner - dug into the law (and the numbers) and filed a story that is staggeringly detailed and incredibly valuable in understanding the issues at hand.

It's so good that I am reproducing it in its entirety here. Hats off to Mr. Gardner for taking the time to get the story right. I have long argued that journalists ought be considered part of the election profession and stories like this are what I'd hold up as evidence for that assertion.

Enjoy.

Obscure laws dictate who picks up tab for special congressional election

By Steven Gardner
Tuesday, April 10, 2012

PORT ORCHARD -- Jay Inslee and Sam Reed are both right.

A special election to pick a replacement for Inslee in the 1st Congressional District could cost state taxpayers close to $1 million, as Secretary of state Reed says. But the extra election won't cost that much, as Inslee says.

"The overall cost (of the 2012 election) doesn't change," Kitsap County Auditor Walt Washington said. Well, it changes a little, he said. Putting another choice on the primary and general election ballots adds maybe $5,000 to each election in Kitsap County.

But while the overall bill is pretty much staying the same, the state is required to pick up a little more of the tab because it is a special election.

In even-numbered years, according to state law, counties bear the cost of electing the governor, the other state executives, members of Congress and voting on statewide ballot initiatives.

An exception is the special election, and that's what former Bainbridge Island Congressman Inslee created by resigning his House seat early to run for governor.

The U.S. Constitution and federal law requires an election to fill the seat, unless the time it's vacant is considered minor. That special election can be done concurrently with the regular election, as it will be here.

In this redistricting year, it means that many people (including more than 70,000 in Kitsap County) will vote in two different congressional districts on the same ballot.

Either way, state law dictates that the state is on the hook for the cost of the special election.

For the counties affected, that means the overall election cost actually goes down.

Reed's office provides a complicated formula that counties use to determine how much to charge any jurisdiction that has something on the ballot.

Dolores Gilmore, county elections manager, said the formula requires each government with something on the ballot to pay 1 percent of the total cost of the election for its first item on the ballot and 0.2 percent for each additional item. After that there are calculations using voter registration figures. As of Tuesday, 73,180 Kitsap County voters are registered in the current 1st District. That's about half of the county's 145,805 registered voters.

All those numbers figure into how the county arrived at charging the state $35,000 for its part on the county's estimated $430,000 primary election.

The county is projecting it will spend $550,000 on the general election. The state's share will be $33,000.

Without the special election each election would have been estimated to cost about $5,000 less, Washington said. Because the state is now paying for some of both elections, though, the county's price tag goes down by about $58,000.

With the state pitching in, that means state taxpaying residents is Walla Walla, Orting and Ilwaco, as well as every other location in the state, will help pick up the tab for Kitsap County's election costs.

The one true additional cost -- the one place that truly would mean an overall increased election price tag for everyone -- is the additional $225,000 Reed estimates it will cost to send postcards to 1st District voters.

"The question we're going to be trying to answer for them is, 'Why do I have two congressional races on my ballot?'" said Katie Blinn, co-director of elections in the Secretary of State's office.

The cost estimate comes primarily from multiplying 427,000 1st Congressional District voters by 25 cents per postcard, once for the primary and again for the general, Blinn said.

Gilmore said the county plans to include information in its voter pamphlets to answer the question Blinn posed. The state is anticipating that won't be enough.

"There's a general rule that if you're trying to get information to people, you have to attempt it a couple of different ways. While lots of people read the voter pamphlet, a lot of people don't," she said.

In Kitsap County, confusion could mean a voter might pick in one race and not the other. Or it could mean leaving all the fields blank. After all, even a voter unaware that there is a vacancy in one seat is probably aware that most voters only get to vote for one member of Congress.

Washington said he wonders why there has to be a special election at all.

That was answered by federal courts, as recently as 2010, that overruled state officials elsewhere who tried to let congressional terms end without finding replacements.

If Washington voters want to take any comfort in this, they might in knowing they are not alone. New Jersey Democratic Rep. Donald Payne died in March. The state will hold its primary in June and Payne will be officially replaced in November, and again in January.

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