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.