A week after the recent election, some Washington candidates and measures were still agonizing over what has become routinely The World’s Longest Vote Count. Not since the 19th century have election results arrived so slowly. Some nations run almost an entire election campaign in the time we take to count the votes.
Canada counts its ballots in hours. Most U.S. states have the majority of ballots counted by midnight of Election Day. But Washington drags out the tabulation for weeks. The delayed-decision Gregoire-Rossi race of 2004 could be a mere prelude to a bigger attention-grabbing debacle in the future.
Imagine an election such as 2000 where the presidential race is a virtual tie and everything hangs on a close outcome in Washington state.
Early returns are inconclusive, so reporters descend on the state and demand an update, only to be told that the next batch of ballots won’t be available for 24 hours. Meanwhile, activists, lawyers and interest groups get involved. Remember Florida? People start alleging incompetence and fraud. Public trust plummets. Everyone is in an uproar because Washington — especially King County — cannot deliver election results in a timely fashion.
The main reason that could happen is that Washington allows absentee ballots to count if they merely are postmarked by the end of Election Day. Our law goes back to a time when few voted absentee; when it seldom mattered if a few ballots straggled in late. From now on, however, all ballots will be “absentee,” and already the system is breaking down.
Oregon and California require that ballots arrive by Election Day so officials can open envelopes and prepare for rapid counting after the polling deadline. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed has long urged the Legislature to adopt a similar system. The Legislature hasn’t acted, leaving counties to cope alone. Some, such as Thurston, do OK. They bring on extra staff and work through the night. But in King County, officials often stop precount processing the weekend before the election so that by Election Day the pileup is huge. Then the late ballots start arriving and the election goes down for the long count.
Some believe it was a mistake to adopt all-absentee balloting because of fraud potential, as well as the appearance of inefficiency that a delayed count entails. The previous mixed system — where most people go to the polls but absentee voting is allowed — might serve better. It is the system used by the huge majority of states. Among other things, it gives voters a chance to change their minds in a campaign’s final days.
But, admittedly, the convenience of the all-absentee ballot is popular. Given a choice between a slightly flawed all-absentee system such as Oregon’s and the even more-flawed all-absentee version we have adopted in Washington, at least we should opt for the Oregon approach.
All that is needed is for the Legislature to enact a rule that requires that all ballots (except for military and other citizens overseas) arrive by Election Day. The question is, do we have to have a major scandal before the Legislature will undertake such reform?