As voters across America head to the polls today, Washingtonians instead will be busy getting their ballots postmarked for the state's vote by mail election. While some results will trickle in tonight, it is likely that several races won't be finalized until later this week (or month) as ballots dropped in the mail this evening make their way through the postal system.
Unlike our neighbors to the south in Oregon, who also vote exclusively by mail, our ballots aren't due today but instead need only be postmarked. In the vast majority of states mail-in ballots must either be received by Election Day or must be dropped off before the polls close. Washington, however, only requires that a ballot be postmarked by Election Day. This policy unnecessarily complicates the tabulation of votes and can leave the results of close races a mystery for weeks.
Retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring mail-in ballots to be turned in by Election Day. Earlier this year HB 1185 and companion proposal SB 5125 were introduced to make this change but were not acted on by the Legislature (though SB 5125 did receive a hearing).
According to the bill report for SB 5125:
Tabulation of absentee ballots may begin at 8 a.m. on the Monday immediately before the day of the primary or election. Results must be kept secret until after 8 p.m. on the day of the election.
Absentee ballots must be received by the county auditor by 8 p.m. on the day of the primary or election in order to be valid.
The county auditor may designate poll sites, deposit sites, or other locations for the receipt of absentee ballots.
For overseas voters and service voters, the date on the return envelope to which the voter has attested, must not be later than the day of the primary or election in order for the ballot to be valid.
Following certification of each election, the county auditor is required to notify each voter whose absentee ballot was not counted because it was not returned within the required timeframe.
Here is Secretary Reed's and Sen. Becker's (prime sponsor of SB 5125) testimony in support of this reform:
According to a January 7, 2011 Secretary of State press release:
Reed said requiring ballots to be received by election night to be counted would allow results for many races to be finalized sooner.
"Our current postmark deadline has become antiquated. We would have much more definitive results by the Thursday or Friday after Election Day by changing this deadline," said Reed, pointing out that the current postmark deadline means that a large percentage of ballots arrive at elections offices after Election Day. "Virtually all of the ballots would be counted by Friday."
Oregon's vote-by-mail system requires that ballots reach elections officials by Election Day.
Following last November's General Election, Oregon had counted 96 percent of its ballots by the Thursday after Election Day, compared to only 73 percent for Washington.
"Oregon's Election Day deadline has worked very well there. In fact, their voter turnout has been just as high as ours in recent years, if not better," Reed said.
The bill would make an exception for military and overseas voters, as their ballots would have to be signed no later than Election Day and received prior to when an election is certified.
Among the sponsors of HB 1185 is Rep. Zach Hudgins who last week announced his candidacy for Secretary of State.
The other Secretary of State candidates, however, do not support changing when Washington's ballots are due.
I asked each of the candidates yesterday for their comments on Reed's proposal and received one response from Sen. Jim Kastama.
Here are the comments that Sen. Kastama provided me:
Respectfully, I do not support Secretary Reed's proposal to change the ballot due date.
Washington voters would be outraged if a ballot postmarked days before the election was rejected as is possible under this proposal. A postmark is the best nonpartisan third party verification method we presently have that a ballot was submitted on time and should be counted. Especially given our State's experience with the 2004 Gregoire/Rossi election, we should not leave any window of uncertainty surrounding the validity of an open ballot.
In Oregon, a significant number of ballots go uncounted each election because of this requirement. The desire for breaking news headlines should not outweigh the preservation of voter confidence. The Secretary of State office should be most concerned with accuracy, rather than speed.
Furthermore, in California there is a bill being proposed, SB348, which would change their existing law regarding postmarks to align with Washington’s law. The bill would provide that any vote by mail (VBM) and special absentee voter ballots will be timely cast if it is postmarked on or before election day and received by the voter’s election official no later than six days after election day.
In California, which currently has a system similar to Oregon’s, during the 2010 General Election at least 15,000 votes went uncounted. In Los Angeles County 1,976 ballots were not counted and in Orange County 2,423 ballots went uncounted. Moreover, in Riverside County 12,563 VBM ballots were found at a local post offices the day after the election that were not counted, even though the ballots had been postmarked on time, because county elections officials did not visit the post office that actually had these ballots. This controversy has become known as the Riverside County Near Debacle.
This proposal has the potential to compromise our election process by making it less transparent, harder to audit and more discretionary. I will continue, as I have successfully done for years, to encourage the legislature to reject it.
Here is Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman's testimony against SB 5125:
According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, however, the vast majority of states require mail-in ballots to actually be received by Election Day. NASS reports:
- In three states, absentee ballots must be returned prior to Election Day.
- In 36 states, absentee ballots must be returned by Election Day.
- In 11 states and the District of Columbia, additional time for the arrival of absentee ballots is provided after Election Day, as long as the absentee ballot is postmarked by Election Day.
Although the numbers will change over the coming days, Washington's election results will be available on the Secretary of State's website starting at 8 p.m tonight.