As best as I can tell, there are two main arguments being offered in favor of changing the ballot deadline from the current postmarked by election day to the more restrictive received by election day: 1) candidates and voters deserve to know who won on election night; and 2) it is the only way to avoid fiascos like the drawn out 2004 gubernatorial count.
But the flaw in these arguments is that they both represent a solution in search of a problem, and a solution that regardless, just wouldn’t work.
The gist of both arguments is that ballot counting is too slow, and that the only way to speed this is up is to require that all ballots be received by election day. That way, theoretically, we could report somewhat complete unofficial results on election night, just like we used to do when voting was primarily conducted at the polls. But a quick glance at ballot statistics in both Washington and Oregon reveals just how faulty that logic is.
The following table shows the cumulative ballot receipt numbers for King County in the days just preceding and following the 2009 general election. The third column represents these ballots as a percentage of the total number cast, based on a projected turnout of 55%. The fourth column represents the cumulative number of ballots counted and reported as of the end of that day.
As can be seen, 452,522 ballots were received by election day, roughly 76% of the total number cast. Yet only 254,261 were counted by the end of the day… barely more than the total number of ballots in hand the Friday prior to the election.
The bulk of the remainder of the ballots cast arrived the next day, with 572,611 in hand at KCE, or over 96% of the total number cast. Yet only 308,650 of these were counted by the end of Wednesday.
There are several obvious lessons to learn from the data. The first is that KCE can’t keep pace with the ballots it is already receiving, thus any delay in reporting returns is due not to a lack of ballots, but rather a lack of capacity to process them. This is true in Oregon as well, which typically reports only 50% of total votes by the first ballot drop election night, not much better than King County, and generally somewhat worse than Washington state as a whole.
That said, even the 43% of total votes reported by KCE on election night was a large enough sample to accurately project the winner in all but a handful of the hundreds of contests countywide. Candidates and voters do know the winners on election night, at least in the vast majority of races.
Of course, as the 2004 gubernatorial contest reminds us, there are those exceptionally close races where the counting and recounting can drag on for weeks, but these are fleetingly rare, and regardless, would not be impacted at all by moving the ballot deadline. This November, over 96.4% of ballots were received by Wednesday, and 98.1% by Friday. Even if we were willing and able to dedicate the resources necessary to count the ballots as they come in, it would only accelerate initial reports by a day, maybe two at most.
The fact is, it typically only takes a day or two to send mail within the county, thus the bulk of late postmarked ballots will inevitably arrive within a day or two following the election, as the table above definitively shows. Most of the remainder of ballots that trickle in over the next week or two are those coming from voters overseas and/or in the uniformed services, and I’m guessing there is little or no political support for making it even harder for overseas military personnel to vote.
That’s why, even in states with more restrictive ballot deadlines, exceptions are usually made for overseas voters. For example, Pennsylvania, which requires elective absentee ballots be received by the Friday before the election, allows overseas civilian and military ballots to arrive as late as ten days after. And that’s a pretty typical deadline nationwide.
Yes, it would be nice to get near complete results on election night the way most other states do, and they way we used to get here in Washington state before mail-in ballots started to dominate our voting, but this is the nature of mail-in elections. It takes time and resources to sort, process and verify signatures just in preparation for counting, and so we’ll never approach the sort of election night returns the likes of Reed, Gov. Gregoire and the Seattle Times editorial board apparently want. They sure don’t do it Oregon, even with their received by deadline.
Personally, I’d rather we get the count right, than fast. And I’m not sure I’m willing spend the extra money necessary to do both, let alone disenfranchise tens of thousands of late voters in the process.