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With elections, getting it right trumps getting it fast
Accuracy is more important than speed, write two veteran elections officials. They argue against the concept of requiring ballot to be received, rather than postmarked, by election day.
Special to The Times
IN this day of instant everything, we certainly understand the natural inclination to want election results, preferably nearly complete, at 8:01 p.m. on election night.
Reality isn’t quite that simple, of course, nor are the solutions.
Just as we have seen every election cycle, newspaper editorial pages, political reporters and candidates are once again promoting a new requirement that all ballots be received by county elections offices by Election Day in order to count. Our Legislature has considered this more restrictive deadline, but on a bipartisan basis has not adopted this change — correctly, in our view.
Advocates argue that Oregon, the nation’s other vote-by-mail state, which requires that ballots be in the courthouse by Election Day, seems to have strong voter turnouts and reports larger vote tallies in the first few days. That may be true, but Washington also boasts outstanding turnout, and our two states have somewhat different procedures and history.
Election administrators of Washington, both state and county, are committed to two key goals:
• Taking no action that disenfranchises legally registered voters. Even with our current laws, a certain number of ballots arrive too late to be counted. Imagine if thousands more voters were disenfranchised, some through no fault of their own, because their ballots were “in the mail” but not postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service by Election Day.
In Thurston County, for instance, at least 40 percent of our ballots are not in-house and processed by election night. Our mail goes out of county to be postmarked. Are we as a state willing to accept large numbers of ballots disqualified, particularly in the early years after a deadline change? Further, severe federal cutbacks in postal service are contemplated, including elimination of Saturday service and closure of many post offices and distribution centers.
• Second, the counties are absolutely committed to accurate handling and tabulation of each and every ballot. It is labor-intensive and time-consuming to carefully check to make sure the signature matches the one on file, the voter’s intent is clear, and the ballot is in physical shape to run through the tabulation equipment. Every election, election officials have to duplicate thousands of ballots so voter intent is honored and they can be tallied.
Yes, we could potentially speed the process by giving a more cursory examination or relying solely on a computer scan of the signatures, but voter fraud or voter disenfranchisement could result. And we worry that moving the deadline earlier would lead to the expectation that nearly all ballots would be counted by election night.
We are very proud of our election process here in Washington, a system that is fair, accurate, accessible and secure. Our state’s embrace of vote-by-mail has been a boon to voters, who can use the mail or a secure drop box — none of the long lines we see in other states.
Hurricane Sandy showed how a single-day election and overcrowded or damaged polling places can make the system vulnerable.
We have a populist tradition and voters who want every valid ballot counted. The counties are committed to getting as many votes tallied as soon as possible. Technology and budget support will certainly assist.
But if we have to choose between speed and accuracy, we choose accuracy.
Kim Wyman, left, a Republican, has been Thurston County auditor for 12 years and was just elected as the state’s incoming secretary of state. She will take office Jan. 16. Vicky Dalton, a Democrat, is the 14-year Spokane County auditor and former president of the Washington State Association of County Auditors.