Moving the ballot deadline will not speed up election returns

The leaves are falling, the temperature is dropping and the last few close races from the general election are finally sorting themselves out… which means it’s once again time for Secretary of State Sam Reed and his surrogates in the media to call for changing Washington’s vote-by-mail deadline from postmarked by election day to received by election day.

Reed said he supports a switch to the Oregon system, calling the postmark deadline “antiquated.”

“We would get a more meaningful result on election night,” he said. “More significantly, virtually all of the ballots would be counted by Friday.”

Except… actually… no, moving the ballot deadline would not result in a much more meaningful election night result, especially here in King County, where the real bottleneck comes not from when the ballots arrive, but rather, how long they take to process.

This bottleneck is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the 641,658 ballots King County reported tallied by the close of business Monday, to the 619,485 mail-in ballots it had received by the time the polls closed last Tuesday. As you can see, it took nearly an entire week for King to finally catch up with its election night backlog, and to start counting those ballots that arrived thereafter. And the county still estimates about 120,000 ballots remaining, not much less than the 147,616 ballots that arrived last Wednesday, 11/3, just a day after the election.

With a peak processing capacity of little more than 75,000 ballots a day, the 373,941 ballots King County tallied on Tuesday night barely exceeded the 349,670 ballots it had received as of the Friday before the election. Indeed, by the time the elections center opened its doors Monday morning, its staff had already fallen hopelessly behind. (And FYI, the same was true in 2009.)

So how would following the Oregon model speed things up? Well, on its own, it wouldn’t, and to understand why, we need merely look at the ballot return statistics for Oregon’s largest county, Multnomah, where even with its more restrictive deadline, only 45 percent of ballots were returned by the Friday before the election… nearly the exact same percentage as King County. Both counties received more than half of their ballots over the final few days of the election, the only difference being that Multnomah’s election was one day shorter. (Far from being the long, drawn out process Reed implies, over 98% of valid Washington ballots are received by the day after the election.)

Well then, how does Multnomah County manage to report results so much faster? Simple: they put more resources into it. Multnomah County processes ballots over the weekend before the election, while King County does not. And while King County reports a single election night return a little after 8 PM, before heading home for the night, Multnomah County continues to process ballots overnight, issuing subsequent reports at 8 AM and throughout the next day. Of course, King could duplicate Multnomah’s efforts, but that would cost money.

As you can see, Reed’s assertions just don’t hold up. Without significant  and ongoing investments in elections equipment and staff, switching the ballot deadline would not provide more meaningful election night results, nor even assure that “virtually all of the ballots would be counted by Friday.” King and other counties simply don’t have the capacity to keep pace with the ballots that arrive during the final few days of the election, and compressing these returns won’t make it any easier.

I don’t doubt the Secretary of State’s intentions, but the numbers just say he’s wrong. Moving the ballot deadline is a solution that just doesn’t work—and as I’ll explain in a subsequent post, it’s a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

Comments

  1. 1

    oxbrain spews:

    We should just require ballots be returned sometime before July, so the lone unpaid temp doing the processing has plenty of time.

  2. 2

    The Duke spews:

    So, the question that begs to be asked is: How do other States handle an all mail ballot? We are constantly looked at as the last State to deliver results. Why is that?

    Maybe moving up the deadline to election day is not the only answer, but it certainly seems like part of the answer.

  3. 3

    spews:

    Lovely.

    King County Elections is busting their asses implementing Sam Reed’s vote by mail program. And he sweats them.

    Size matters.

    King County is nearly three times the size of Multnomah County. Logistically, the problem is not just bigger, it’s different.

    Plus, King County Elections is back at the Temporary Elections Annex in Tukwila. The new facility is at great risk of being flooded. (Thanks Ron!)

    That King County, heck all the counties, deliver the results as fast as they do is to be applauded, not denigrated.

    If Reed were being intellectually honest, ahem, he’d use Snohomish or Pierce counties.

    What’s really tragic is that journalisming is really, really hard. Fact checking Reed’s press releases, with a quick google search, is way too much to ask.

    It’s not like Reed floats this idea every single year.

    If you want quick, cheap results, return to poll voting. Otherwise, suck it up.

  4. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @2 The answer is hiring more people to process ballots, and raising taxes so the county has the money to hire them. Alternatively, you can be patient and wait for them all to be counted. The only people who need to know on Election Night who won are the media types. If they want faster results, let them give the county the money to hire more ballot counties. It’ll help stimulate the economy because there are plenty of people who want to work.

  5. 6

    Michael spews:

    People are looking for the answer to a problem that doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if you get all your results by election night, or just 90% of them. Besides, having a few races take a couple of days to decide keeps things fun.

    Use the system which allows the most people to participate, which is the one we have now.

  6. 7

    Brenda Helverson spews:

    The IRS uses a USPS postmark to determine if you paid your taxes on time. The Civil Rules use the USPS postmark to determine when mailable pleadings are deemed to have been received. The USPS has no stake in delaying a postmark. Even if a Postal employee was trying to influence an election, he would have no way to know if a ballot was for his candidate or the opponent.

    OTOH, an elections official could conceivably avoid a lot of work by declaring that a ballot was received late, even if it was a USPS delivery error. The USPS postmark provides an independent point of reference and should be retained.

    Every now and again, Secretary Reed drops his adopted nice-guy persona and shows us that he is as untrustworthy as notorious hypocrite Dan Evans.

  7. 8

    spews:

    Roger @5,

    Four or five extra shifts is all we need to dramatically speed things up. A weekend shift, plus double shifts Monday, Tuesday and maybe Wednesday.

    But I agree with Michael @6… it’s not really worth the money.

  8. 9

    spews:

    Goldy @ 8

    Weekends, maybe.

    But with current staffing levels, I’m against having a second shift. Elections are already grueling marathons. Tired workers make mistakes; I’d rather they got their sleep.

  9. 10

    spews:

    More evidence to back Goldy’s argument — it took until Thursday, November 6, 2008 to obtain a projected outcome in the Oregon Senate race won by Jeff Merkley.

    On Tuesday night, Merkley had trailed Gordon Smith by tens of thousands of votes. Once Multnomah County started to catch up with its backlog, Merkley pulled ahead. Even at the time the race was called, Oregon had counted only 75% of its eventual total.

  10. 11

    spews:

    Speaking of election returns, I’m still tracking the Senate vote totals by county. In the first two counties reporting today, I saw a funny rhythm to the Rossi totals.

    In Clark County, he’s now at 78787 votes. And in Grays Harbor, his tally stands at 12121.

    You’re right, it sometimes takes very little to amuse me.

  11. 12

    rhp6033 spews:

    We’ve had some pretty close elections recently, and every one of them is going to take the better part of a week to resolve, mostly due to the challenge of validating ballots. Changing from a “postmarked by” to “delivered by” system isn’t going to speed that up more than a day or so, at best.

    It seems to me that the only people really hoping for a quick answer are the candidates and their campaign staffs. It allows them to have a big party (celebrating or crying in their beer), then rest a couple of days before wrapping things up.

    The news media types are probably afraid that the candidates will learn that it’s a waste of money to have election-night parties with free food and drinks, so they might miss out on a free party.

    Otherwise, who cares? changing from a “postmarked by” format to a “delivered by” format only adds uncertainty to the process from the voter’s perspective, and might speed up the results by a day or so at best. The last several elections have had a number of very close races which take a week or so to resolve (sometimes more), and making the change just to speed up the process by one day or so isn’t going to make that much difference in such tight races.

  12. 13

    rhp6033 spews:

    Just out of curiosity, what do the elections officials do with mail-in ballots received before election day? Do they (a) lock them up and don’t process then at all until election day, or (b) do they “validate” the ballots but don’t count them, or do they (c) validate and count ballots received up to that point, but don’t report them until the polls close on election day?

  13. 14

    Zotz sez: Klynical sucks tiny orange boehners... spews:

    Sam Reed is a Republican.

    Republicans don’t want everyone to vote.

    When people vote, Republicans lose.

    It’s that simple.

  14. 15

    spews:

    The current system works just fine.People all know that they need to get their ballots in the mail by the end of Election Day to be postmarked that day.

    It’s the same when you pay taxes on April 15th. What a mess that would be – to say your Tax Return has to be received by April 15th, not postmarked by April 15th. The same thingb happens when you pay property taxes – the validation date is the date mailed, not the date recveived. There is a reason for that. Who’s willing to guarantee a delivery date for a piece of mail. Even the Postal Service only gives a range of when something will likely arrive.

    Leave well enough alone.

  15. 16

    The Duke spews:

    I do think it would be interesting to see a benchmark for what other States do. I would like to see which State has the highest percentage of participation in elections, and which State has figured out how to get ballots counted. There is a possibility to learn from what others are doing.

    I do think that this year’s level of participation is wonderful. Some of our counties are off the charts. With that said, there was something nice about sitting up late on election night and actually finding out who won. I guess I’m just an old fashioned romantic. . . sigh. . .

  16. 17

    don spews:

    @13

    My understanding is that ballots are verified before election day but that they cannot be counted until the polls close. I recall a big stink years ago where election workers counted absentee ballots before the polls closed. The Secretary of State came down hard and ruled that was not allowed. Must have been 10-20 years ago, might have been a lawsuit as well.

  17. 18

    slingshot spews:

    In a couple pre-election interviews I happened to catch, Reid always brought this subject up, but never really delved into the particulars. It really would only change things by 24 hours fer chrissakes. It’s now almost exactly one week since the polls closed, and the ballots counting isn’t finished.

    The successful candidates don’t take office until the January after election day anyway.

    As long as I know on election night that perennial looser Rossi lost again, I’m good.

  18. 19

    Sam Adams spews:

    @3

    Yes!
    Poll voting with ID required.

    Absentees need to apply every election and have the mail-in ballots in the hands of elections officials by election day.

  19. 20

    don spews:

    @16

    Goldy already provided info on what other states do, Oregon. We are the only two states out of 50 that have all mail voting.

  20. 21

    don spews:

    @11

    Now if he had 78787 votes in Snohomish County you’d really have something to think about.

  21. 22

    proud leftist spews:

    Patty’s lead over Dino the Dim is now just a few hundred shy of 100,000 and nearing 5%. The race really isn’t particularly close anymore. Not that I would propose any changes in the way we vote and count ballots here, but because of the initial closeness of the vote and the prolonged perception of the race being a cliffhanger, people will remember this race as being closer than it was.

  22. 23

    Blue John spews:

    (sarcasm) That it takes so to count the paper ballots, this is why WA needs to go to a proprietary touch screen Diebolt elections system. That way the proper election results pre-programmed into the machines can be tallied in no time at all. (/sarcasm)

  23. 24

    rhp6033 spews:

    # 17: I think they should verify ballots as they come in, but not open the secrecy envelopes or send them through the scanners until polls closed. Doing it earlier raises the prospect of one side or the other profiting from having advance knowledge before the polls close. At the very least, it raises questions of impropriety, which we don’t need.

    That’s why they don’t open bids before the close of the bid deadline. If you know the amount of your opponant’s bid, and you still have time to change your own, then you can change your bid to $1.00 cheaper.

  24. 25

    spews:

    rhp 13, 24

    Ballots received are “all but counted” as fast as possible. Meaning they’re scanned into the database asap, even before the election.

    Sam Reed changed the rules, a while back, to permit this prescanning. “Tabulation” is now running a report.

    I oppose scanning ballots before election day.

  25. 26

    spews:

    rhp 13, 24

    Ballots received are “all but counted” as fast as possible. Meaning they’re scanned into the database asap, even before the election.

    Sam Reed changed the rules, a while back, to permit this prescanning. “Tabulation” is now running a report.

    I oppose scanning ballots before election day.

  26. 27

    David spews:

    @17;

    That brouhaha was in Pierce County.

    There was a big push to mail-in voting by the then assessor; who then found that they couldn’t get the votes tallied fast enough to give the media the same day results they had been used to with the old lever machines.

    So the next election, they started tallying the votes as soon as they came in, trying to keep up. Workers knew who was winning before election day. Someone found out and there was a big stink.

  27. 29

    The Duke spews:

    Proud Leftist @28

    Hating kittens and small children does not preclude one from being an old romantic.