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Spin Control: Nothing fishy about the late shift in primary vote count

Dave Sullivan places his ballot in a ballot box outside of the downtown Spokane Library on Nov. 7, 2016.   (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Political operatives, if they are smart, might want to be careful about casting aspersions on any changes in vote counts after Election Night, the final tabulation from Spokane County’s Aug. 2 primary shows.

That’s true particularly, although not exclusively, if they are Republicans.

Turnout and the number of ballots counted after election night nearly doubled in Spokane County in the two weeks after the deadline for mailing in or dropping off the ballots passed. While that’s been a fairly common trend since the state went to all mail-in balloting in 2011, a close look at the numbers reveals it led to some logical shifts in some races rather than nefarious manipulation of the results.

Washington requires any ballot dropped off or postmarked by the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day be processed and counted in the two weeks afterwards if it has a verifiable signature from a registered voter.

Some people who think the race should be over on Election Night suggest chicanery if the candidate they prefer goes from being ahead to losing in the later counts, although they tend to keep quiet if the reverse happens.

On Election Night, Spokane County released the results from just under 77,000 ballots, or about 21.5% of the county’s registered voters. Over the next two weeks, the total grew to 144,334, or a 40.3% turnout.

Spokane County has 440 precincts of varying sizes, with anywhere from a couple dozen registered voters to more than 1,400. Some precincts are a few city blocks, others cover dozens of square miles in rural parts of the county. As one might expect with such a wide range of districts, there was a wide range of results regarding the total number of ballots returned in each precinct and the percent of that precinct’s voters cast ballots, or turnout.

In a few vote-rich precincts, more than 300 ballots were counted on election night, but in most precincts the vote-count was fewer than 200 votes. Over the next two weeks, the ballot count grew in every precinct – some by a few ballots, some by as many as 358 ballots.

This isn’t evidence of ballot-box stuffing, by the way, and not just because there aren’t any ballot boxes any more. A computer analysis of the late votes shows that the largest percentage increases tended to occur in lightly populated precincts, which is something that happens when you divide with a smaller number.

But the largest increase in total votes – and remember, elections are decided by votes, not turnout percentages – are mostly in precincts that trend Republican. Suburban and rural precincts in north, southwest and southeast Spokane County showed increases of 200 or more ballots, as did precincts in the northwest area of the city of Spokane, the upper South Hill and the south half of the city of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake. The parts of the city of Spokane, such as the northeast precincts, the Gonzaga area, East Central and downtown, that trend Democratic, usually had less growth in ballots after election night.

There was strong turnout, and a big jump in the late vote count, in the precinct that covers Kendall Yards, which is something both parties might want to keep in mind for the November election.

But the overall pattern helps explain why most Republican incumbents running countywide widened their gaps over Democratic challengers, and why Republican challenger Bob McCaslin came within 3.5 percentage points of County Auditor Vicky Dalton, an incumbent Democrat, in the final count after being down 9 percentage points on Election Night.

Just as the election data doesn’t tell us how anyone voted, the computer analysis doesn’t explain why the late vote trended Republican. Spokane County as a whole has, for years, trended Republican, as the GOP’s near lock on the County Courthouse demonstrates.

Logic says the vote count will get more Republican in Republican precincts and more Democratic in Democratic precincts.

It doesn’t prove, but suggests, that Democratic voters were more likely to mark and mail their ballots as soon as they arrived this summer, and Republican voters were more likely to wait to vote on or as close to Election Day as possible.

One could say that was because Democratic voters were more eager to vote, or that Republicans were more likely to hold to the tradition of voting on Election Day itself. Or because Democrats went on vacation in June and Republicans went on vacation in late July.

But you can’t say that any of those increases were a result of any shenanigans in the election process.

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