As expected, Election Night results in Washington state left many voters hanging like a Florida chad. This state’s laborious process found many high-profile races — governor, secretary of state, the charter schools and same-sex marriage initiatives — too close to call on Nov. 6.
Eventually, over the next few days, the winners emerged from the numbers. Same-sex marriage opponents conceded defeat a week ago Thursday, two days after the election. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna conceded Friday night, and Democratic Secretary of State candidate Kathleen Drew followed suit on Saturday. Charter schools supporters claimed victory Saturday as returns showed a 42,000-vote lead with about 315,000 remaining to be counted statewide.
It’s the 315.000 number that concerns many observers. That’s about one-tenth of votes still uncounted — four days after the election. Truth be told: For us, that’s not bad.
Like neighboring Oregon, Washington votes entirely by mail, though voters also can leave ballots at a limited number of drop boxes. Unlike Oregon, Washington doesn’t require ballots to be in election workers’ hands on Election Day; a postmark on or before the big day will do. The looser deadline leads to a huge surge of ballots arriving on the days after the election, and occasionally the leader on Election Night is not the winner of the final count.
The slow count certainly amounts to an inconvenience, and the strongest critics maintain it undermines trust in the electoral process itself. Sentiment is growing for the state to join Oregon and require all ballots in hand by Election Day.
Not so fast. Meaning, not so much of a faster tally should that idea come to fruition.
Elections officials say other factors come into play. Oregon does some things differently, such as verifying signatures electronically and having elections workers stay up late on Election Night and then returning to work the next morning.
Officials in this state question whether electronic verification of signatures is accurate enough to be cost-effective, and they say the grind of a late night following by an early morning for elections workers can lead to mistakes. In King County, which has almost one-third of the state’s 3.9 million registered voters, some ballot-scanning machines straining under Election Day loads stopped completely and had to wait to be rebooted.
The Oregon-type requirement also effectively moves up Election Day for those who wait until the last minute, or for those who regard the traditional first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the day to vote.
More than half of the counted ballots were returned by the weekend preceding Election Day, but that left a strong plurality of voters who devoted that weekend to studying the issues, reading the state Voters Guide, brushing up on endorsements and filling out their ballot before mailing it on Monday. Many of those ballots arrived in county courthouses the next day, Tuesday, but the U.S. Postal Service makes no next-day guarantee. Postal service cutbacks soon will route a Yakima-to-Yakima letter — or ballot — through Spokane; voters can count on further delays once that occurs.
Already, one state legislator has announced a bill will be introduced in the next session to require ballots in hand on Election Day. Outgoing Secretary of State Sam Reed backs such a move, but his successor, Kim Wyman, is less enthusiastic.
Any such move would warrant an aggressive public education campaign about the need to mail several days early, plus it would require adequate funding to implement needed technological upgrades, such as electronic verification of signatures and faster, more efficient scanners.
Meanwhile, as we mosey along toward our final count, election winners are gearing up for the next legislative session, the state is preparing to implement newly approved ballot measures, and planet Earth still rotates on its axis. The tally may be tardy, but elections officials can post the final numbers confident of their accuracy. If any changes count them more quickly, great; but it’s absolutely essential that they be counted correctly.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.