I’ve already spent some time joyfully fisking the Seattle Times’ “absurd” proposal to change the deadline on mail-in ballots from the current postmarked on election day, to the more restrictive received by election day, so there’s no need to do a line-by-line takedown of Joel Connelly’s own contribution to this peculiar genre of conventional wisdom, except to correct one very glaring misstatement of fact:
Every other state mandates that ballots be in the hands of election officials when polls close on election night.
Ten seconds of googling shows that this simply is not true. State imposed deadlines for receiving mail-in ballots are all over the place, ranging from Pennsylvania’s restrictive requirement that absentee ballots be received by 5PM the Friday before the election, to the more permissive postmarked on election day rules in Alaska, District of Columbia, Maryland, Washington and West Virginia. Yes, Oregon is the only other state with all mail-in voting, and it requires ballots be received by election day… but that’s not much of a statistical sample, now is it?
That factual error aside, Joel’s main argument for moving the ballot deadline is a large, stinky red herring, for the only thing sillier than his fantasy of Washington playing the decisive electoral role in a tight, 2012 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney (if it’s that close in WA, the electoral college outcome would be a foregone conclusion long before election day), is his suggestion that our ballot deadline could conceivably contribute to a constitutional crisis.
The main problem with both Joel’s and the Times’ musings (apart from the fact that their proposal would inevitably, you know, disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters statewide), is that they insist on conflating King County Elections’ slow ballot counting performance with the mail-in ballot deadline, when in fact the two currently have very little to do with each other. As I reported on election night, KCE had about 350,000 ballots on hand as of 5PM the Friday before the election. Yet they only managed to count about 250,000 ballots as of election night, and didn’t finally get through that original 350K batch until Thursday afternoon.
So perhaps, the 485,000 ballots counted before KCE shut down for the weekend included all those received by election day. Perhaps. And this morning, nearly a week after the close of our virtual polls, KCE is only just now getting around to counting the ballots that have arrived since.
All else being equal, KCE would not be much further along in the counting process had the deadline for receiving ballots been election day. And with the vast majority of ballots arriving by the Friday following the election (it only takes a day or two to send mail within the county) moving the deadline could only speed up results by a few days, even with a dramatically expedited counting process.
As for the excruciatingly close contest that Joel imagines, it’s the provisional ballots, missing and mismatched signatures, counts, recounts and various canvassing board and court challenges that drags out the process for weeks. Had the ballot deadline been moved prior to the 2004 gubernatorial election, it would have ultimately done little if anything to expedite the certification process.
Mail-in ballots currently must be received by the certification date — 15 days after a primary or special election, 21 days after a general — but in practice, only a handful of out-of-state and overseas ballots, mostly from overseas military personnel, trickle in during the final weeks of the canvass. I suppose an argument could be made for moving up the ballot deadline to say, the Monday following the election (as in West Virginia), but that would not officially certify results any quicker.
Resources permitting, we could count the bulk of the ballots a couple days sooner, but the thousands of provisional and signature-challenged ballots set aside for special handling will take just as long to process, with or without the added burden of handling a trickle of late mail-ins. And anything along the lines of what Joel fears — a presidential race in hand-recount territory — simply cannot be avoided or expedited; in the end, there’s only one canvassing board, and it can only consider one disputed ballot at a time.
So Joel’s proposed “fix” would do nothing to ward off the paranoid fantasy he imagines.
It would, however, make it more difficult to vote, while dramatically truncating election campaigns well in advance of election day. And that makes for a proposal I simply cannot support.