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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Pace of ballot counting sure gets the dander up

One sure sign that fall is easing into winter is that political types are complaining about how long it takes to count ballots in Washington state.

This rant usually starts about three days after an election, when the results of most races have been known for two days but a few close contests hang in the balance. This year, the main target of the whining is a state Supreme Court race, which on Friday was still somewhat in doubt.

If only Washington could be sensible like Oregon, the argument goes, and require mailed ballots to be at elections offices by Election Day, as opposed to simply postmarked by Election Day.

State Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, has proposed such a law for the past two years and vowed to try again in 2011.

“Of course we want ballots to be counted correctly, but who wants a repeat of 2004, especially with the potential for the eyes of our entire nation to be focused on Washington, waiting for more than a week for the ballots to finally be counted?” Becker said in a prepared statement on Election Day. “If (those other bills) had become law, citizens would have more certainty about learning who they have entrusted to help our state and nation return to prosperity. We probably wouldn’t be subject to all the national speculation I’m hearing about when the state’s results will be final, and it would bolster public confidence in our state’s election system.”

All due respect to Becker, but of the top 100 things that need fixing in Washington, waiting a couple weeks to find out who wins a close election ranks about 433rd.

Sure, we count ballots for weeks, but most winners and losers are clear on election night. The only people inconvenienced by the long counting period are candidates in close races. After subjecting the rest of us to months of inane commercials and evasive answers to specific questions, they don’t rate much sympathy.

Members of the general public aren’t so worried about who’s going to win an election that they are unable to drag themselves out of bed to go to work or Costco. Even if the winner of some race isn’t known for a couple weeks, he or she doesn’t head to the courthouse, the statehouse or the other Washington until January. Seems like plenty of time for even the most anxious of us to know who’s going to “help our state and nation return to prosperity.”

The loudest national speculation about when Washington’s count would be finished came from cable news talking heads, who have to blather about something as they seek to fill a 24-hour news hole. Anyone distressed by that should change the channel.

And the fix being proposed – requiring all ballots to be at the county elections office by Election Day – wouldn’t change much. It might only shave a day off the counting process. Here’s why:

Most ballots are mailed and delivered in the same county, so it takes only a day or two to reach the elections office. Requiring them to be received by Election Day would mean the true procrastinators who now mail on Tuesday could wait until Saturday or even Monday. We’d still have drop-off boxes where ballots could be deposited up through Election Day (at least, Oregon does).

In other words, some ballots that now arrive by mail on Tuesday would arrive Monday, and the current mail run from Wednesday would arrive Tuesday; but the final day’s hand-delivered walk-in votes would come in at the same time. So what we had by Nov. 3 this year we would have had instead by Nov. 2. In Spokane County, that was 99 percent of the ballots received for this election.

Most of the remaining 1 percent of voters could be nudged into earlier mailing, but a few hundred – those ballots sent to troops overseas – would still need all the time they can get. Washington state accepts those ballots until certification, and they can affect a truly close election like the 2004 gubernatorial race. Anyone want to disenfranchise some of the brave men and women fighting for our freedoms by rejecting their ballots just because mail pickup is erratic in Helmand province?

The main factor in stringing out the count is not when ballots arrive but when they are processed – signatures checked, envelopes opened, ballots run through scanners, and remade when voters don’t follow instructions like using black or blue ink, or not making stray marks on the ballots. Most counties are also slowed by the limited number of pricey scanners available.

So we could hire more temporary election workers to process ballots and buy more scanners to use a couple times a year. All in favor of local government spending more money so a couple politicians don’t have to wait a few extra days to know if they won or lost, raise your hands. When you put them down, reach for your wallet because it’d be nice to put your money where your mouth is.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears on the newspaper’s website with daily items, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol.
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