On November 3, 1992, I strode into the United Methodist Church in Colfax, Washington to cast my first ballot in a U.S. presidential election. I remember the moment vividly — not only because I was doing my part to help choose the next leader of the free world, but because of the excitement I felt at the people I saw there, working the polling site. Colfax is a small town farming community of 2,800 so, in a sense, the people were the same ones who helped raise me and instill within me many of the values that I hold today. Key among them was the responsibility to vote: both to exercise my constitutional right and to honor the sacrifice of those who had given their lives to preserve it.
Fast forward to the present, in King County, and to the convenience of Vote-by-Mail. Sadly, while the ballot represents the same sacrifice, it is relegated to the status of my cable bill — both due on a date certain. But it gets tackier. In King County, ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day. That means that many of the ballots cast won’t arrive at the elections office until several days after the election is over. Most races by that point will have been decided, rendering those late ballots effectively meaningless. (Okay, not really, but are they really that meaningful if they have little to no impact on the outcome?)
How is it possible that in King County, home to many of the world’s leading high-tech companies, it takes longer to count the ballots today than it did a decade or two ago? This is not progress; this is technology regress. The technology problem proceeds, further, to encumber the political process. No sooner is there a vote count delay that platoons of partisan lawyers arrive on the scene to start a legal brawl.
While I suppose that vote-by-mail has made voting more convenient, it has come at the expense of the symbolism, majesty, and even efficiency of the voting process itself. It used to be considered one’s civic duty; now it’s a chore. And it’s fraught with suspicion. It’s not just the pageantry of voting that has been damaged; it’s the entire process.
Take election night parties, for example. Yesterday, The Seattle Times reported that King County will only release election results once, at 8:15 pm. No further vote totals will be released until the next day at 4:30 pm. Four Thirty!! Imagine many of the election parties. At 8:15 pm there will be a collective cheer, or a collective groan. That’s it — time to go home. It won’t be much better for those watching on television, either. This is a system that takes all of the excitement out of the electoral process.
As a Republican, I remember the unbridled enthusiasm of election night in 1994. I had moved to Seattle only weeks earlier and attended the election night party in downtown Bellevue. As the vote totals slowly trickled in, the excitement grew. Sen. Slade Gorton and Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn took turns addressing the crowd from the podium. Meanwhile, in Washington’s 5th Congressional District it was a back-and-forth between House Speaker Tom Foley and newcomer George Nethercutt. Nethercutt was ahead…no, he was behind…where were these votes coming from; people would ask… what precincts, Spokane, or Colfax? It mattered. Foley was strong in Spokane, Nethercutt in the rural parts of the district. It was like a sporting match: no one knew the outcome. In the end, though, we would. And it would take hours, not days.
Perhaps I’m too sentimental. I know that it’s unlikely we’ll ever return to the expense and “inconvenience” of traditional polling places. At a minimum, however, we should follow Oregon’s lead and require that ballots be received in the elections office by Election Day, not simply postmarked by that date. An army of ballot processors should begin counting the ballots and release them in batches on election night and not at pre-appointed times, either, as is the case in King County. There’s something anti-climatic about visiting a website to find out when the next count will be released.
I prefer the tension of watching the counts come in unpredictably, wondering every moment if my candidate will prevail. Let’s get back to the days when television news stations reported live from election night parties, documenting the ebb and flow of vote totals. They’ll be there this year, of course, but what will they have to report at 8:30 or 9 pm? Just those drunk with enthusiasm, or sodden with despair. What’s the excitement in that?
In 2008, people rightly marveled at the excitement of the electorate, driven mostly by the enthusiasm surrounding the candidacy of Barack Obama. King County witnessed turnout of nearly 85 percent. Imagine his victory absent the spectacle of Grant Park in Chicago on election night, or the unscripted street party on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Imagine if it took days to know the outcome, or if reporters knew the exact moment that some elections office, somewhere in the country, would post results that would propel him to the presidency. Does that sound like fun? Not to me. Does it create a sense of community or civic pride? Hardly.
With the present system in King County, the drama and excitement I felt in 1992 and 1994. or the exhilaration of Democrats in 2008, will never be repeated. Something’s been lost, and to me, it’s very sad.
Steven J. Buri is a vice president of Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, and serves as a councilmember in the City of Newcastle.