By JASON MERCIER
Imagine the following scenario: It’s the day after the election and you open the morning paper to learn that the next governor won’t be known for weeks. Ridiculous? Unfortunately in Washington that is exactly what voters can expect for at least some of the state’s election races.
Last year, supporters of the school levy constitutional amendment were staring at defeat the day after the election, but eventually absentee bailouts showed the measure passed. And who could forget the roller coaster race for governor in 2004 that showed Dino Rossi in the lead weeks after the election, though his lead dwindled with each passing day, eventually being reversed in a second recount.
So why does Washington suffer a marathon election month while the rest of the nation can wake up the day after the election and move on? The culprit is not the state’s shift to vote-by-mail, but it is the way we conduct our elections.
Washington is one of only six states that count absentee ballots that arrive after election day. In most states, mail-in ballots must either be received by election day or must be dropped off before the polls close. Washington, however, only requires that a ballot be postmarked by election day. This policy unnecessarily complicates the tabulation of votes and can leave the results of close races a mystery for weeks.
With the state now all vote-by-mail, with the exception of King and Pierce counties, it is time to require all ballots be received on election day. This is exactly what Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming require. North Carolina goes a step further, requiring absentee ballots to be returned by 5 p.m. the day before the election.
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed supports requiring mail-in ballots to be turned in by election day. Speaking on his behalf, state elections director Nick Handy told the Associated Press, “We believe it builds greater trust and confidence in the system.”
Despite having the secretary of state’s support, bills introduced in the past to make this change have died, running into the legislative grim reaper of election reform hiding under the guise of preventing “voter disenfranchisement.” Apparently, people who oppose joining the majority of states that require absentee ballots to be received by election day fear that doing so will somehow disenfranchise voters. Even when considering the most undecided of voters facing a severe case of procrastination, under this change they still would be able to take their ballot to a precinct drop-off location on election day. This no more disenfranchises voters than not allowing voters to continuing voting beyond election day just to make sure they are really sure after seeing what everyone else does.
While the lack of speedy election clarity is an irritant for Washingtonians, imagine what would happen under our current policy if the presidential race relied on the outcome of our state’s ballots? The ensuing chaos could make Florida’s 2004 hanging-chad contest look like an exercise in election discipline. This is especially true if the presidential numbers mirrored what happened during the state’s 2004 gubernatorial race and were magnified for weeks on 24-hour cable news networks.
Of course, if the 2004 election weren’t enough to prod the state into this common-sense reform, perhaps it will take being embarrassed on the national stage to make sure our state has an election day and not election month. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center, a policy research organization based in Seattle and Olympia. It can be contacted at (206) 937-9691 and washingtonpolicy.org.