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Originally published November 8, 2012 at 9:29 PM | Page modified November 9, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Why is ballot counting so slow in Washington state?

As of Thursday night, 30 states and the District of Columbia had essentially counted 100 percent of their ballots, 12 states had tabulated 99 percent and everybody else — including our vote-by-mail brother Oregon — were in the mid-90s. We had tallied 76 percent.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If there was any doubt, Election 2012 has confirmed it: Washington is the slowest vote-counting state in the country.

As of Thursday night, 30 states and the District of Columbia had counted virtually 100 percent of their ballots, 12 states had tabulated 99 percent and everybody else — including Washington's vote-by-mail sibling, Oregon — were hovering around 95 percent or higher.

Washington state had tallied 76 percent, with at least three major contests still hanging in the balance: the governor's matchup, the race for secretary of state and a ballot measure on whether to allow charter schools.

As in the past, King County — the state's largest — was no exception, with just more than 70 percent of its expected 1 million ballots counted. It counted about 100,000 ballots Thursday, most received Tuesday, and it still had roughly 275,000 more to count.

Elections officials blamed voters who waited until the last minute to cast their ballots and laws allowing them to do so. In this state, voters need only to postmark their ballots by Election Day, meaning that ballots often trickle in long afterward. On Thursday, King County reported receiving some 5,000 new ballots.

From receipt to tabulation, bundles of ballots take about a day and a half to process, mostly because of security requirements such as manually checking signatures against voter files, officials said. If a ballot has a problem — a missing signature or the wrong ink color — it takes longer.

Counting faster would be costly, said Katie Blinn, the state's co-election director.

In Oregon, which had counted 95 percent of its expected votes by Thursday, ballots must be received by county election offices by Election Day. The state, which has a smaller population than Washington and has been doing all-mail voting since 2000, uses electronic signature verification and asks election workers to work late into the night, said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a state spokeswoman.

In King County, workers go home at 8:30 p.m. or earlier.

"Here's what I know about working people until midnight and having them back early in the morning: That's when you have problems," said Sherril Huff, director of King County Elections. "That's when you make mistakes."

Huff was clearly frustrated by days of complaints about the slowness.

"We have the largest voter population in this state," she said, noting that King County has twice as many registered voters as the next largest county, Pierce. "What is it about that people don't understand?"

King County hired 500 temporary workers, including 300 ballot counters, and they work in pairs. That's not much more than Pierce County hired, said Huff, explaining that the King County Elections building did not have space for any more workers.

The county also has been slowed by ballot scanners that, apparently stressed by a high number of ballots, broke down Wednesday and last Saturday, Huff said. Officials were able to reboot the machines quickly, but starting them takes an hour because of security protocols, she said.

"If people want faster ballot counts, they need to move to Oregon," she said.

Ballot counters employ a multi-step process, said Blinn, the state co-elections director. First, they sort the envelopes into manageable stacks, scan an image of each signature and check it against the voter files (electronic verification is not yet accurate enough to be cost-effective, Blinn said). About 2 percent of ballots have signature problems, and workers must follow up with each of those voters.

If there is no signature problem, workers open the outer and inner envelopes, check the ballot for any problems and prepare it to be scanned into a large computer for tabulation.

Why does that take so long?

"You ask that question now, and then two months from now, you'll ask, 'Why did that election cost so much?' " Blinn said. "Manpower, equipment, monitoring and wiring, it all costs money. ... If you're in a budget crisis, to a certain extent, well, if it takes an extra day, life will go on."

News reporters are the only people who complain about the vote-counting delay, said Blinn, adding that Washington's system is relatively inexpensive, accurate and encourages turnout.

Switching to Oregon's system could lead to more ballots being disqualified, she said.

But Washington state's system has its drawbacks as well. Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center said that the longer a ballot count drags on, the more likely residents are to distrust the results.

"There is a cynicism that builds in the public if they see their candidate ahead one night and down the next," Mercier said.

The system is also hard on candidates, said Dino Rossi, who has endured close races for governor and senator.

"You just gave a year of your life to something you care about and then it drags on and on," he wrote in an email. "I think everyone would rather have the election finished on Election Day."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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