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Originally published October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2008 at 11:27 AM

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Guest columnist

Four years later: What's better about Washington elections?

Four years after Washington's improbably close governor's race, one decided by a tiny fraction of 1 percent, we enter the final days of...

Special to The Times

Four years after Washington's improbably close governor's race, one decided by a tiny fraction of 1 percent, we enter the final days of a rematch between Gov. Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi with the polls and pundits forecasting another tight finish.

The tiny 133-vote margin last time — 0.0047 percent of the 2.8 million votes cast — and the three tallies and a full-blown court challenge placed Washington election departments under unprecedented scrutiny and uncovered myriad shortcomings.

Reform was clearly needed — and reform we got. In the four years since that trial by fire, Washington has seen dramatic, sustained upgrades and improvements — and the work goes on. I can honestly say that Washington has made enormous strides to fix the flaws and to collectively create the trustworthy and transparent elections we all want and deserve.

And now, the proof is in the pudding. If this year's election produces cliffhangers again, are we ready? I confidently assert that we are.

So what's better?

Thanks to the bipartisan partnership of our office, the Legislature, the governor and our hardworking county auditors, the system has been overhauled from top to bottom, with voters, reformers and media watching closely. Learning the lessons of 2004, we have implemented about 180 election-law reforms and 1,100 administrative improvements. We have begun regular reviews of county operations, upgraded training for election workers, clarified and improved election rules, and launched a variety of online voter-information and registration features.

A sampler of some of the "big deal" things we've done:

• Washington has one of America's finest statewide databases to track voter registrations. Using federal dollars, we unified 39 separate county databases into a computerized statewide system in January 2006. We have shed the rolls of over 480,000 voters, including 158,000 duplicates, felons and deceased voters. The rolls have never been cleaner, but we continue working on this task, particularly felon screening. (At the same time, we've been vigorously doing voter outreach and promoting registration of eligible citizens, including our young people and our veterans in federal facilities. Voter rolls have grown by a net 713,000 since 2006.)

• All counties now reconcile the number of ballots received and processed. Security at county election centers is tightened, and ballots are carefully secured.

• Uniform statewide standards have been clearly laid out for what constitutes a voter's intent.

• Ballot design has taken on new importance, moving us beyond the old "butterfly" ballot problems of the past. Bar-code markings on ballot envelopes will track ballots as they are received by the counties, but will not link an individual voter to how he or she voted.

• The dangerously late primary, which rushed counties to deal with recounts and other time-consuming problems while racing to get ballots ready for the General Election, has been moved from September to August. That gives more breathing room and assures military voters get their November ballots on time.

• The Legislature has authorized more frequent state reviews of county election practices. County and state election officials collaborate on training.

• Voter registration and voting itself have become more convenient. Washington is one of only two states permitting online voter registration, although the Oct. 4 deadline to register online or by mail for this year's General Election has passed. Since 2004, all but two counties have moved to vote-by-mail, and 95 percent of us voted this way in the Top Two Primary in August. Punchcard voting and hanging chads are a thing of the past. Voters with disabilities may vote electronically, with a paper trail assured. Accessibility is a high priority.

• -State and federal law now require citizens to produce positive identification for registration and voting.

• Voter information has never been more abundant and convenient. A new MyVote service, available at www.vote.wa.gov, confirms a person's voting status and a wealth of unfiltered information about candidates and issues, as well as locations of ballot drop-off or poll site locations. The state mails out 43 zoned editions of the Voters' Pamphlet, including editions in Spanish, Chinese, Braille, audio and large print. An online TVW Video Voters Guide is easily accessed at the same location, as are new social media, including a photo-sharing project dubbed "I Will Vote."

So it's clear, things are vastly improved. We can't rest, though, and together we'll work to assure elections that are fair, accurate, accessible and secure.

Sam Reed is Washington's 14th secretary of state.

He may be reached at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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