Washington’s election system has many virtues, but speed isn’t one of them.
Only 40.6 percent of last month’s Spokane County general election ballots were counted on election night.
It wasn’t until Nov. 16, two weeks after the election, that anyone could say with mathematical certainty that Al French had unseated County Commissioner Bonnie Mager.
Hand-fed ballot tabulators weren’t the main problem, but they contributed by performing at the speed of a balky church-office folding machine.
Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi …
Election workers feed a handful of ballots at a time into Spokane County’s four optical-scanning vote counters to keep them from jamming.
“You’ve got to stroke ’em,” Auditor Vicky Dalton said. “They’ve each got a personality.”
Running from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Election Day last month, the optical-scanning machines processed 75,676 ballots and left thousands uncounted.
Punch-card tabulators are much faster, but Congress banned them from federal elections after Florida’s notorious problems with “hanging chad” and confusing “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Afterward, speedy touch-screen voting systems were introduced, but voters didn’t trust them.
State elections director Nick Handy said Yakima and Snohomish counties bought some and had to abandon them.
“People wanted paper,” he said.
Anyway, faster tabulators are only No. 2 on Dalton’s wish list.
She and Handy agree the real bottleneck is verifying signatures on ballot envelopes and duplicating problem ballots that can’t be scanned.
“If we’re going to make any headway, it’s really in the preparation,” Dalton said.
It takes about three days to get a mail-in ballot from its envelope to the tabulator in most counties, Handy said. Greater care must be taken in checking signatures now that only Pierce County uses polling stations where voters cast ballots in person.
“Since the 2004 governor’s race, we have become very focused on accuracy and accountability and being able to reconcile every ballot every step of the way,” he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire defeated Dino Rossi by just 133 votes, and their supporters scrutinized the election system’s every wart.
Since then, election offices across the state have redoubled efforts to make sure every mark on every ballot is properly interpreted. If a problem that would cause a tabulator to reject a ballot can be fixed, election workers do so with a duplicate ballot.
Last month in Spokane County, 25,551 ballots – 13.7 percent of the total – had to be duplicated. Despite days of effort, many of those problems weren’t detected until counting machines spat out the ballots.
Scanning tabulators reject ballots for numerous reasons, including wrinkles, coffee stains, erasures, scratch-outs, white-out, more than one color of ink, write-ins and sarcastic notes in the margin.
Whether a voter expresses disdain by jotting a comment or writing in Mickey Mouse, “all it does is slow us down,” Dalton said.
She thinks the problem might be reduced by counting write-in votes only for candidates who file a declaration 20 days before the election. That would require a change in state law.
“We need to review all of the laws concerning write-ins because this is taking a considerable amount of time,” Dalton said.
She believes the Legislature also could help with the biggest bottleneck of all: verifying signatures on ballot envelopes.
Available technology could automate a time-consuming process in which teams use scanned images to compare ballot-envelope signatures with those on voter registration cards.
Dalton said her staff can verify only 15,000 to 20,000 signatures a day, and about half of the ballots cast in any election arrive in the last three days.
Spokane County can’t begin counting votes until the day of the election because its tabulation machines require results to be recorded daily. State law allows no early tabulation if election officials can see the preliminary totals.
More sophisticated tabulating machines – in use by some of the state’s larger counties – can process ballots early because they don’t prepare any totals until Election Day.
King County Elections Office spokeswoman Kim Van Ekstrom said the county’s 16 tabulators have been able to process ballots within a day and a half of their arrival.
Electronic correction of problem ballots speeds up the work in King County. Although some hand duplication is still necessary, many ballot problems can be corrected in scanned images without creating a new paper ballot.
Signature verification remains a bottleneck throughout the state, though.
Dalton said signature-checking software used by banks could do about 80 percent of the work automatically if elections offices had enough signature samples.
“That would probably be the single most effective improvement to speed up tabulation of the ballots,” Dalton said.
Workers would have to check only the rejected signatures and a random sample of the accepted ones.
Dalton said the problem is that signature-checking software would need five to 15 samples from each voter, and state law limits election offices to signatures on voter registration cards. Some of those are decades old and cluttered with extraneous marks.
The easiest solution, Dalton believes, would be to allow election offices to collect ballot-envelope signatures after election workers verify them. For most voters, she estimates it would take two to three years to get the minimum number of signatures needed.
Dalton said she plans to seek enabling legislation in the four-year term to which she was just re-elected.
Another piece of legislation that might help is Secretary of State Sam Reed’s suggestion to require ballots to be returned by Election Day.
But Dalton said that “really doesn’t make a hill of beans of difference” if ballots aren’t processed faster once they are received.
Less processing is another possibility. Some states don’t have as much sympathy for voters who fail to follow instructions.
“I think it’s a discussion that needs to happen,” Dalton said. “Are we going too far in trying to salvage every mark on a ballot?”
Dalton favors an abundance of caution to avoid having an outcome turned around by a recount.
However, she said, “There are not many states that go to the extent that we do.”