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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Our state’s deadline for ballots needs to change

This commentary is from the Nov. 5 edition of the Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.). It does not necessarily reflect the view of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board.

Regardless of the outcomes, every election leaves us wondering: Isn’t there a better way? Yes, there is a relatively easy way to improve our state’s election: Change the deadline. Oregon, the pioneer in all-mail voting, requires that all ballots must be in the elections office by the end of Election Day. In Washington, the second state to convert to all-mail voting (except Pierce County, which still uses polling places), ballots only must be postmarked by Election Day. Up to one-half or more of the ballots arrive one, two or several days later.

Our state’s system works fairly well, but Oregon’s deadline makes more sense. Before explaining why, we offer three reminders:

Changing to Oregon’s deadline would not prevent long, drawn-out elections with multiple recounts. One example is what happened in 2004 when Washingtonians didn’t know for six months the official outcome of the gubernatorial race. That drama had nothing to do with ballot deadlines; it had everything to do with the closeness of the race.

Ballots from overseas still could (and should) be accorded the postmarked-by-Election-Day deadline. That is a reasonable plan for members of the military and other overseas voters. Still, that constitutes less than 1 percent of ballots received.

There is nothing “wrong” with Washington’s ballot deadline system; no “fix” is needed. But the system can be improved. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey both support changing to Oregon’s more precise ballot deadline. So does Gov. Chris Gregoire. Reed has tried to get the Legislature to make the change to Oregon’s deadline. Legislators should make the change. Here’s why:

Reed said in 2009: “We constantly hear complaints from voters, campaigns, the parties and the media about how long it takes to process the votes. In this day of instant everything, people want to know on election night who won.”

Kimsey says changing to Oregon’s system would “reduce the amount of time it takes to confidently predict the outcome of close races by one or maybe two days. If a contest is extremely close, it doesn’t matter whether the Oregon or the Washington system is used. The outcome won’t be known until the election is certified, or even longer after recounts or any challenges in court.”

Kimsey also lists another reason to change: “The Oregon system is apparently much easier for voters to understand, resulting in fewer voters returning their ballot after the deadline. I’m told that this year Multnomah County’s elections office will only receive about 20 ballots that can’t be counted because they were delivered too late. In contrast, here in Clark County, we expect to receive a couple of hundred ballots that can’t be counted because of late postmarks.”

Here’s one frightening hypothetical: What if a presidential election depended on our state’s electoral votes and was delayed for days while we waited for the mail to arrive? Do we want to become as infamous as Florida in 2000?

Neither state does this perfectly; Oregon just does it best.