Polls point to weeks of waiting for election results

October 24, 2012

Thankfully for the sanity of Americans across the country, Washington isn't a battle ground state for the Presidency that could determine the outcome of the Electoral College. One can only imagine the conspiracy theories and wall to wall coverage of TV talking heads exploding as vote results from Washington trickled in little by little, first days and then weeks after Election Day as the country anxiously waits to learn who the next President would be.

While Americans in general won't have to be put through this type of turmoil, unfortunately for Washingtonians, this is exactly what we have to look forward to based on the closeness of several state races. Consider the following results from today's Elway Poll:

  • Governor: 2 pt race
  • Attorney General: 2 pt race
  • Secretary of State: tied
  • R-74: 4 pt race
  • I-502: 4 pt race

With races this close it is hard to imagine enough votes will have been returned and counted by Election Day to declare a winner.

Though some may see fraud or mischief as the vote totals flip in the days or weeks following November 6, the real problem of Washington's month long election is the cynicism and distrust it unnecessarily breeds in the state's election results.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, all we have to do is look across the Columbia River to Oregon to see a working alternative. 

Thanks to a bill adopted in 2011, all of Washington is now vote by mail. Unlike in Oregon (that is also all vote by mail), however, Washington ballots aren't due on Election Day but simply need to be postmarked.

According to Brenda Bayes, Elections Deputy Director for Oregon, the state's 14 year requirement of ballots being due by 8 p.m. on Election Day is working well:

Oregon has been a complete vote by mail state since voters cast their ballot to expand vote by mail to all elections by a vote of 757,204 to 334,021 at the 1998 general election. Voters have now had experience in Oregon's vote by mail system for fourteen years. A voter has many different ways to ensure that their voted ballot is received by the county elections officials no later than 8:00 pm on Election Day. County dropsites are placed throughout the state starting the 18th day prior to an election up through 8:00 pm on Election Day. Voters have the option of dropping their ballots off at official dropsites, mailing their ballot by mail or dropping their ballot off at any county elections office.

If a voter is concerned about their ballot they may track their ballot online at oregonvotes.gov to see if their ballot has been sent or received, contact their county elections office or contact our office to inquire into the status of their ballot. Oregon continually educates voters on the election process and deadlines in publications such as county or statewide voters' pamphlets, informational inserts received with their ballots, publications on county websites and media announcements.

Our office typically do not receive complaints regarding a voter feeling like they are 'disenfranchised' solely based upon the 8:00 pm restriction. An individual may contact their legislature if they wish to ask them to draft a bill during session to allow for postmarks on ballot. To my knowledge, there has not been any such legislation to extend this deadline. Oregon voters appear to  appreciate that they are able to have 'unofficial results' quickly after the 8:00 pm deadline regarding candidates and measures. If Oregon were to go to a 'postmark' deadline it would delay these unofficial results.

Retiring Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring mail-in ballots to be turned in by Election Day. Last 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).

I asked Secretary Reed if he still supports changing Washington's ballot deadline to reflect the experience in Oregon. Here is his response:

I have long supported a requirement that ballots be returned to the county elections offices, by mail or drop box, by Election Day.  Neighboring Oregon, which pioneered vote-by-mail via a citizen initiative more than a decade ago, has found that good voter education and steady reminders of the return deadline have produce excellent results.  In Washington, even with the postmark-only requirement, we get a sizable number of ballots returned too late to be counted, and that is always sad.

Every election cycle, we get numerous complaints from candidates, the parties, voters, the media and others about how long it takes to get substantially complete results, particularly in tight races. It is human nature to want to know the results once Election Night is here and the deadlines are past. People want to know who won. But in Washington, only about 60 percent of the ballots have been received and processed for tallying by Election Night. The rest are still in transit or yet to be processed and we have to wait until the end of the election week or early the following week to get substantially complete returns.

I concede that it is a difficult sell in the Legislature and it is understandable that no one wants any voter disenfranchised because of the return deadline. But it is a good change to consider in the future.  Meanwhile, I encourage our excellent county auditors and their election departments to ramp up efforts to expedite the handling and tallying of ballots. We need to improve on our technology for processing ballots – including automated signature-checking to expedite the process. Certainly, accuracy comes first, but speed and efficiency are also very important to the voters of Washington.

According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, 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.

Here is a summary of when mail-in ballots are due in each state.

Hopefully Washington will soon join Oregon in requiring mail-in ballots to actually be received by Election Day (exceptions could be made for military and overseas ballots as occurs in other states). In the meantime, no need to stay up late and lose sleep on November 6 hoping to learn the winner of these statistically tied state races. There will be plenty of time to watch the vote totals change in the weeks that follow.

UPDATE: Here is my radio interview on this reform proposal.


Ballot deadlines

There are only two possible reasons for advocating that ballots be received by Election Day.

1. You are too mentally deficient to understand that the rate-limiting step for all mail-in voting is signature validation, not tabulation. Even with increasing rates of early voting, elections departments are generally well behind on this task on Election Day, even in states that require that ballots be received by Election Day.

2. You explicitly intend to disenfranchise as many voters as possible.

I certainly trust slower results with maximum enfranchisement over faster results with maximum disenfranchisement. My distrust of the process increases exponentially as the number of ballots not counted increases. Do you want me to distrust you even more? Just tell me that you refuse to even inform me whether or not my ballot was counted.

If you want faster results, advocate for the return of a poll voting option. Another factor that slows tabulation is the necessity for elections department workers to duplicate ballots that have been corrected according to instructions or damaged in the mail. Poll voters can vote a new ballot on the spot if the tabulator rejects their ballot for some reason, a much faster process.

Amen, Martha!

Even with an Election Day deadline for mailing, the problem is not that deadline. Ballots mailed in-state on Election Day are received within a couple of days- but we spend weeks counting, as ballots from military and overseas voters trickle in. How many weeks before Election Day must our military voters cast their ballot to be sure it arrives by Election Day? Thank you Jason for proposing we effectively disenfranchise our military voters!

Military ballots

As I mentioned in the post, military and overseas ballots could continue to use the postmark process since as a % of the overall totals they are so small. This is precisely what happens in many of the other states that require ballots to be in on election day - they make an exception for those that are overseas or military.

Early ballot processing important

One of the changes in the bills Reed has been advocating for is allowing tabulation to begin the day before the Election. Oregon starts "scanning" their ballots on Oct 30. In total, 9 states start early tabulation/processing of ballots so they are ready for Election Day.

While that is an important change, it doesn't do any good if the ballots aren't on hand yet.