Editorial: Counting of ballots needs to be done faster

The odds Washington voters will wake up Wednesday morning – if they went to bed – knowing the outcomes of every election are about as good as those for a recount in the former Soviet Union.

Our mail-by-midnight balloting delays conclusive outcomes for days, if not weeks, trying the patience of all those seeking closure every bit as much as that weeping Ohio 4-year-old who told her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney.”

Raising suspicions in Eastern Washington, too, that the folks on the other side of the Cascade Curtain will keep counting ’til the Democrat wins.

Early predictions that more voters would stay on the sidelines this year are giving way to expectations that participation will match the record 84 percent of 2008. Early returns from most major counties have kept pace with those of four years ago, but Spokane County has been an exception. On Tuesday, only 31.3 percent of ballots had been returned, compared with 36.8 percent four years ago.

Looking at the flow of ballots in 2008 underscores how many days past Tuesday it may take to determine the election winners. More than 35,000 ballots – 15 percent of the total – were not available for counting until Wednesday. Although the number of late ballots dropped sharply after that, 2 percent of all votes arrived in the courthouse between Election Day and Nov. 26, after which no more are accepted.

In the gubernatorial race, or two or three initiative tallies, 2 percent could be critical.

Outgoing Secretary of State Sam Reed says Washington voters are entitled to a more definitive conclusion to balloting that begins in July and does not end until late November. He’s right.

Oregon, the only other state will all-mail voting, requires ballots be in-hand by 8 p.m. election night. In 2008, the turnout was 85.7 percent, compared with Washington’s 84.6 percent, although it must be remembered we were not 100 percent mail-in balloting until 2011. Oregon tossed its ballot boxes in 1998.

There is a significant difference in populations: Washington has far more members of the military deployed overseas. But the state will email or fax ballots to assure they make the round trip in plenty of time to be counted. Also, the primary was moved up to Aug. 7 to allow plenty of time to certify results and create general election ballots.

The best argument for a shift in deadlines may be the dire circumstances of the U.S. Postal Service. Rural offices are closing, or do not have the staff to postmark late mail. Late postmarks have already cost a few voters their suffrage.

Maybe Tuesday’s voting will deliver decisive outcomes. More likely is a week of creeping tallies that raise doubts and impede the transitions to new regimes in the offices of the governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor, the most closely contested races among the statewide contests. Results of some initiative voting may also be uncertain.

It does not have to be this way. Reed tried to change it. His successor should take up the cause.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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