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Originally published November 5, 2010 at 9:32 PM | Page modified November 5, 2010 at 10:47 PM

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The ballot counting goes on as state seeks quicker way

For elections officials in many states, the 2010 races are just about history. But in Washington, ballot counting will continue for weeks. What's taking so long?

Seattle Times staff reporter

For elections officials in many states, the 2010 races are just about history. But in Washington, ballot counting will continue for weeks.

In most races around the state, vote margins have grown enough that candidates either have conceded or declared victory. But ballots are still coming in, and many officials expect to continue tabulating up to the Nov. 23 deadline.

So what's taking so long?

When all Washington's counties except Pierce County moved to voting primarily by mail recently, officials expected ballot sorting to take longer, a necessary evil to ensure accuracy. But now, Secretary of State Sam Reed and others are questioning whether there are ways to speed up the process without sacrificing election integrity.

Oregon's vote-by-mail system requires that ballots reach elections officials by Election Day to be counted. In Washington, the first Tuesday in November is the postmark deadline, meaning a large number of ballots arrive during the ensuing week.

Reed said he supports a switch to the Oregon system, calling the postmark deadline "antiquated."

"We would get a more meaningful result on election night," he said. "More significantly, virtually all of the ballots would be counted by Friday."

However the tabulating of ballots, once received, is difficult to speed up, elections officials said.

"We have to verify every single signature, and then there's a team of individuals who have to remove the secrecy envelopes from the regular envelopes, and then we take out the ballot from the envelopes, and then we have to look at the ballots, and then we can tabulate," said Carolyn Weikel, the Snohomish County auditor. "And all throughout this process, there are steps and procedures to ensure the integrity, the transparency and also the security of the ballots."

Before Election Day, officials can preprocess ballots by verifying signatures, but cannot begin to tabulate results. For larger counties, this means election-night results primarily represent votes that arrive before Tuesday.

Then the waves of mailed ballots arriving Wednesday and Thursday create a bottleneck in vote processing.

The best way to get Election-Night results that more accurately represent the final outcome is to persuade voters to cast their ballots earlier, said Kim van Ekstrom, spokeswoman for King County Elections.

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In 2004 ballot-counting discrepancies in King County caused bitter controversy over Gov. Chris Gregoire's 129-vote victory over Republican Dino Rossi, who ran and lost in this fall's U.S. Senate race.

After that election, many changes were made in Washington's electoral system, and King County has been particularly careful to avoid errors, Reed said. King County now computer scans all incoming ballots to ensure every one gets counted, van Ekstrom said.

The scanners allow the county to decrease human involvement in some steps, such as signature recognition. They set aside ballots if they find errors or have trouble deciphering them. Then they are processed by hand. Although the county's large population slows its results, Reed said scanners are time savers and using them in more counties could speed up statewide results.

Sean Collins Walsh: 206-464-3195 or swalsh@seattletimes.com

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