The Independent Task Force on Elections that Ron Sims formed in the wake of the disputed 2004 election has released its recommendations. I haven’t seen a copy of the full report yet, but judging from the media reports (P-I, Times) it is hard to argue with most of the proposed reforms.
- Hire and work with an independent, external “turnaround team” to resolve leadership, organizational culture, policy and operational problems that confront the King County elections office.
- A separately elected official with primary responsibility for elections will increase accountability to citizens, the task force believes.
IN KING COUNTY
- Institute vote-by-mail and regional voting centers in 2006; place two election observers at or adjacent to counting stations during recounts.
- Change the primary date to the first Tuesday of June.
- Automatically restore voting rights to former felons upon release from prison.
- Conduct only one manual recount when a recount is necessary.
- Require election officials to receive all ballots by 8 p.m. election night, except those of military and out-of-state voters.
- Limit the number of elections each year six to four.
Of course, the recommendation getting the biggest headline is that of hiring an outside team of management experts to quickly turnaround the elections division’s “seriously flawed organizational culture.” Sims released a statement in which he said he would “enthusiastically embrace” the “SWAT Team” proposal… which does not necessarily call for the firing of Dean Logan. According to task force chairwoman Cheryl Scott, Logan’s tenure is “between him and the county executive,” and Sims spokesman Sandeep Kaushik said there are no plans to force out Logan.
“It’s up to Dean,” Kaushik said. “He’s been in a tough spot. I think as long as he has the determination to carry on and right the ship, then we would like to help him in any way we can to do that.”
As many of you know, I have spent many pixels defending Logan and his department from what I believed to be unfair, dishonest and politically partisan attacks. I have talked to a number of county auditors (R and D) and other elections officials from across the state, and all expressed great respect and admiration for Logan. Not a single person who has worked with him questioned his honesty and integrity, and he was clearly hired for the job because nobody in the state had more expertise in elections procedures than him.
Whether Logan lacks the management skills to successfully run such a large and complex bureaucracy as KC Elections is another question, which if I were Sims, I would leave to the management experts on the SWAT Team to answer. One thing I do know is that Republican charges of a corrupt department that fraudulently stole the election from Dino Rossi, were proven entirely baseless in a court of law.
The task force was split on whether King County should elect an auditor like all of the other counties in the state… and so am I. Some members said an elected auditor would make the office more accountable to voters, while others pointed out that doing so does not guarantee electing a good manager. While such a move is certainly not an immediate solution, there are good arguments on both sides. Considering the highly charged partisan atmosphere surrounding elections at the moment, I would hope that the county waits a little while before addressing this issue.
As to the other recommendations, I could easily accept them all as a package.
Moving the primary to June (or at the very least, August) is a no-brainer that was the number one reform requested by every auditor in the state plus Sec. of State Sam Reed. Both parties deserve a slap on the nose for failing to include this in the election reform package that passed during the last session. If the R’s really care about assuring that overseas military ballots go out on time, they should stop their obstructionist tactics on this issue.
Automatically restoring the voting rights of felons upon release from prison is also a procedural no brainer. Unless somebody can prove that there is some societal gain from denying felons the franchise — and I would argue the opposite — there is absolutely no justification for adding this procedural layer of complexity to our system. In the end, the task force made a cost-benefit analysis; if there are any benefits from denying felons the right to vote, it certainly does not justify the costs.
Republicans claim that this is a Democrat plot to create more Democrat voters… to which I respond “bullshit” and “who cares?” There is absolutely no direct evidence that felons tend to vote Democrat, and that argument is particularly irrational in WA state where the vast majority of felons are white, working-class men… the core Republican demographic. But felon demographics is entirely besides the point; African Americans tend to overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and no Republican would seriously suggest denying them the franchise.
As to conducting a single, manual recount when a recount is necessary… well… I hadn’t thought about that before. Yeah… I suppose I could go for that. The manual recount turned out to be a model of bipartisan cooperation, and an extraordinarily open and transparent process. From a public trust perspective it would have eliminated the bullshit “two out of three” argument the Rossi folks used. My only concern is that manual recounts are burdensome and expensive, and this reform would result in a few more of them.
The one recommendation with which I’m least comfortable is making election night the deadline for receiving ballots. While I’m sure it would simplify the process, I’d have to have a better idea of how many ballots might be disqualified by such a move, before I could voice an opinion.
In the end, simplifying the process is the theme of most of the recommendations, not the least of which being the most significant one: moving to an all mail-in election by 2006. As I’ve previously written, I don’t like mail-in voting, but the die was cast when we liberalized it a few years back. Voters overwhelmingly avoid the polling place, and it simply doesn’t make sense to support two entirely different voting systems. Yes, King and other counties had problems with mail-in ballots, but by eliminating the much more complicated poll voting, it will permit the elections division to focus on fixing and perfecting their mail-in ballot operations. This is common sense.
In the last election, 70 percent of voters voted by mail… in some counties as high as 86 percent. The market has spoken, and critics of mail-in voting on both the right and the left need to accept the will of the people and work to make mail-in procedures as secure and reliable as possible. Critics, like our good friend Stefan, argue that moving to all-mail voting would only further undermine public trust and confidence… but that’s a load of crap. The best way to restore public trust in elections is to conduct them smoothly and accurately, and the easiest, quickest path towards that end is to eliminate unnecessary complexity from the process.
I personally will miss the polling place, and regret that we as a state ever strayed down the path towards all-mail elections. But here we are, and there’s no turning back, and I’m pragmatic enough to reluctantly accept it. To stick King County with a burdensome, expensive, untenable dual system, while the rest of the state goes all-mail, is to assure that KC elections will be the whipping boy in all future close elections. Perhaps that works politically for Republicans seeking a campaign issue to help them overcome their numerical disadvantage in King County, but it just isn’t good public policy.
So all in all, it looks like the task force has made some very practical recommendations. I’m sure there is more fodder for partisan sniping in the full report, but I’ll get to that when I see it.