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Spin Control

Sun., April 13, 2014, 6 a.m.

Sunday Spin: The Pew elections rankings

To see the rankings by the Pew Charitable Trust for the state's elections performance mentioned in today's Spin Control column, click here. 

Haven't read the column yet? It's inside the blog.

When a good government group last week rated the states’ election procedures, Washington received respectable but not stellar marks while Idaho was close to the bottom.

The Pew Charitable Trust ranked Washington as having the 12th best electoral performance in the last presidential election. Idaho, it said, had the 46th.

Before anyone starts wringing their hands about the need to hire a tutor to bring Washington’s grades Top 5 or grounding Idaho until it does better, it’s important to remember that these lists are subjective and somewhat contrived to emphasize things the folks at Pew think are very important. That’s not necessarily what the general public would think is important.

For example, one score in the Pew ranking is for turnout. Washington is credited with a turnout of just over 65 percent in the last presidential election, which may come as a shock to anyone who recalls state election officials describing it as 81.25 percent. That 16-point difference isn’t a result of bad math on somebody’s part, but on Pew using a different formula.

State elections officials use the old-fashioned method: Take the number of ballots cast, divide them by the number registered voters in the state and that’s your turnout. Or in the case of Washington, which votes by mail, your turn-in. It’s a very precise number.

Folks at Pew do it differently. They divide the number of ballots cast by the number of people in the state who could be eligible to vote, whether they’re registered or not. That’s a less precise number because it requires a bit of guessing: Census Bureau estimates of the number of people who are 18 or older, minus non-citizens, but including those living in the state long enough to qualify for a ballot and not barred from voting because of a felony in their past that hasn’t been erased so they have their rights restored.

Some academics and good government types prefer that formula because of concerns some people don’t register because states make it too hard.

The problem with that formula, at least when applied to Washington, is that registering to vote has never been easier. You can go to the courthouse. You can pick up a form at many government offices. You can print one out from the Internet. You can fill one out on line or when getting a driver’s license or applying for state aid. You can even bet on the come, “preregistering” if you’re under 18 now but will reach that magic age by Election Day.

Pew estimates about 16 percent of eligible citizens in Washington aren’t registered to vote. A cynic might say most wouldn’t register without a gun to the head, and even then they wouldn’t vote. But there are things that good government groups would like states to do, such as allowing people to register to vote on Election Day and then cast a ballot. Washington has so far resisted that.

“Research shows that states with Election Day registration have increased turnout, even after accounting for other factors,” the Pew report card says in its turnout section.

Sometimes, but not always. For example, Idaho allows Election Day registration, and its turnout was 74.3 percent using the standard calculation, or 60.9 percent on the Pew report card. North Dakota, which tops the Pew rankings (as it did in 2010 and 2008) doesn’t even require registration. You just show up, show your ID, and get a ballot.

So North Dakota’s turnout was like, high 90s, right? Wrong. It was 61 percent, under the Pew formula, four points lower than Washington, and about the same as Idaho.

Pew also has some qualms about voting by mail, which is the way everyone votes in Washington. “Unlike in-person voters, who may have an opportunity to correct errors, mail voters have no recourse if a mistake is made,” it says in its report.

That isn’t really true. A mail-in ballot comes with instructions on how to correct a mistake – or change your mind on an issue or a candidate – and it’s possible to get a replacement from the elections office or a voter service center on Election Day.

This is all pretty academic. But if I were Washington, I’d go to the principal and argue for a better class ranking.




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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.