Ballots should be due on Election Day

Several state races on election night 2012 looked a lot like the 2004 race for governor with the races for governor, Initiative 1240 for charter schools and secretary of state being too close to call.

These races ultimately wouldn’t be decided until later in the week.

On election night 2004, then Attorney General Chris Gregoire led state Sen. Dino Rossi by 7,000 votes. By the time all the ballots had been counted (the first time) two weeks later on Nov. 17, Rossi led Gregoire by 261.

A few recounts later, Gregoire was ultimately declared the winner by a mere 133 votes. A legal challenge would uphold Gregoire’s victory.

Because Washington requires ballots only to be postmarked, not delivered, by Election Day, it’s difficult to declare winners on election night.

Instead of an election day, we have an election month. A month of campaigning, followed by a month of waiting. The problem with holding a month-long election is the public cynicism and distrust it unnecessarily breeds in the state’s election results as vote leaders flip days and weeks after the election.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Oregon has all-mail voting too but, unlike Washington, state ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

According to Oregon elections official Brenda Bayes, this process is working just as voters intended when they adopted this requirement in 1998. Bayes notes: “Our office typically does not receive complaints regarding a voter feeling like they are disenfranchised solely based upon the 8 p.m. restriction. ... Oregon voters appear to appreciate that they are able to have unofficial results quickly after the 8 p.m. deadline regarding candidates and measures. If Oregon were to go to a postmark deadline it would delay these unofficial results.”

Retiring Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring that mail-in ballots arrive by Election Day. Reed recently told me, “I have long supported a requirement that ballots be returned to the county elections offices, by mail or drop box, by Election Day. Neighboring Oregon, which pioneered vote-by-mail via a citizen initiative more than a decade ago, has found that good voter education and steady reminders of the return deadline have produced excellent results.”

Reed says he gets complaints from candidates, parties, voters and the media every election cycle. “It is human nature to want to know the results once Election Night is here and the deadlines are past. People want to know who won. But in Washington, only about 60 percent of the ballots have been received and processed for tallying by Election Night.”

With only 60 percent of ballots ready for counting on Election Day this year, Washingtonians were in store for a long wait.

Imagine if Washington were a swing state like Ohio or Florida in a presidential election. The entire nation could potentially have to wait weeks for the outcome as we finish counting our ballots.

Though Americans in general don’t have to put up with this type of election turmoil, for Washingtonians, this is exactly what we have to look forward to in close races.

The vast majority of states, like Oregon, require mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day. Washington should join them, with the same exceptions for military and overseas ballots.

Jason Mercier is the government reform director at Washington Policy Center, an independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information, visit washingtonpolicy.org.