Spokane-area candidates locked in close races will have to keep biting their nails.
Some absentee ballots might be counted later this week, but winners might not be known until the final votes are counted next Wednesday, County Elections Supervisor Tom Wilbur said.
As many as 10,000 ballots remain to be counted, and that could easily reverse the Spokane City Council race, in which incumbent Orville Barnes holds a 29-vote lead over John Talbott.
Or the proposed county sales tax increase for jails, which is trailing by 31 votes.
Or two races in Spangle, where John Logan has a two-vote lead over Joe Coombs for mayor and Kenneth Degon holds a similar margin over Pamela Kellogg for a council seat.
“I know everybody would like to see us count them the day after the election, but we just can’t do that,” Wilbur said. “There are procedures we have to follow.”
About 7,500 absentee ballots have arrived at the courthouse, but that’s just the beginning of the process for the mail-in ballots.
Wilbur has as many as 10 members of his staff verifying signatures, opening envelopes and cleaning computer cards. Signatures must be checked to ensure that no one votes twice - once by mail, once at the polls.
Another 2,200 ballots that were cast on election day must be “remade” because the computer is refusing to read the ballot cards. Wilbur said a small percentage of the computer cards the county purchased from its supplier were printed with the holes and numbers slightly out of register. That printing problem causes the computer to balk, and contributed to the delay in counting ballots on election night.
The same holes will have to be punched in new cards that were properly printed so that those ballots can be counted.
Another 683 ballots are “questioned” - they may have been cast at the wrong precinct or by people who weren’t on the voters list even though they were sure they were registered. Elections officials must consider each of those ballots individually.
Counting a handful of ballots each day isn’t practical, Wilbur said. The staff should have enough ballots by today or Friday to warrant an interim count. They may have to work through the weekend to have all ballots ready to count by the state deadline next Wednesday.
But this may be the last year for such delays, he added. The county is spending about $100,000 for a new vote-counting system to replace the 23-year-old card counter. The new system, which also computerizes the voter rolls - will read ballots 2-1/2 times faster, and should be more tolerant of minor printing errors, Wilbur said.
It also will operate by itself, so the elections office won’t need to interrupt other county computer operations for vote counts.