The facts behind the ballot deadline debate

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.

Ballots
Received

Pct. Of
Vote

Ballots
Counted
Fri. 10/30229,82538.70%
Mon. 11/2289,95048.82%
Tue. 11/3452,52276.19%254,261
Wed. 11/4572,61196.41%308,650
Thu. 11/5581,31397.88%377,157
Fri. 11/6582,75798.12%485,856

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.

Comments

  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    I don’t think the arguments “in favor” of this scheme are relevant. I think the real question is who is behind it. You can bet your ass there’s an ulterior motive.

    Remember what Disraeli said: Most people have two reasons for what they do — a good reason, and the real reason.

  2. 2

    ratcityreprobate spews:

    Goldy, I think you have Ballots Received and Ballots Counted on Friday 11/6 reversed. Only republicans believe King County counts more ballots that it receives.

  3. 3

    prefer transparent verfiable elections spews:

    Since a Republican (Sam Reed) has been advocating for this for years, I suspect it is because it is likely to reduce the number of voters by disenfranchising them.

    If you look back at Sam Reed’s actions since he has been in office, (approving paperless touch screen voting machines in 2002 – which prevented 100,000 votes from being verified in the 2004 recount -, his cavalier attitude about the security, transparency and verifiability issues with the electronic voting and ballot counting machines, and his repeated reckless proposals for Internet voting) it is clear that Reed is not on the side of the people. He has ulterior motives.

    Reeds pretends to be the non-partisan moderate Republican, but his actions speak otherwise.

  4. 4

    spews:

    Reed also retains his hard-on for the vile blanket primary, and is the chief proponent of the just-about-as-vile cajun primary.

    It’s all part-and-parcel as a scheme to discredit voting transparency. AKA to elect more stealth-Republicans by muddying the waters of party identification and party enthusiasm.

  5. 5

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @2 Goldy’s figures are correct. The numbers in the “Ballots Received” column are the cumulative total, not the number of ballots received on 11/6. To get that number, you have to subtract the 11/5 cumulative total from the 11/6 cumulative total, i.e. 582,757 – 581,313 = 1,444 ballots received on 11/6.

  6. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @2 (continued) I suppose it’s possible there was an error that Goldy fixed between the posting of #2 and #5 above; if so, I didn’t spot it, and my apologies to #2.

  7. 7

    spews:

    Looking again at the numbers in Goldy’s table, I have several observations:

    a) almost half of the ballots were received on either Tues or Wed

    b) it wasn’t until Fri that the vote-counting really got going

    c) even on Fri, when they could move just about all personnel away from the “received” side of their operation, King County tallied fewer ballots (109K) that it received on either Tues (163K) or Wed (120K)

    Incontrovertible evidence that the rate-limiting step is KCE verification and processing, not receipt of the ballots.

  8. 9

    Michael spews:

    Washington state politicos are big on the band wagon effect. Everybody else is talking about this, so The Gov & Co. feel the need to jump in.

    Dear Governor G.,

    If everyone else was jumping off the Narrows Bridge would you do it too?

  9. 10

    Particle Man spews:

    Well, i am not sure where I come down on this issue.
    Would is be nice to know more on election day? Yes
    Would this solve the 8pm to when the last post office stops postmarking ballots issue? Yes
    Do I buy your numbers Goldy? No not entirely.

    With this rule change folks would still have until 8 pm on election day to get their ballot into a drop box.
    Those intending to mail their ballot would be inclined to vote and mail several days in advance in order to ensure that their votes would reach elections in time and thus be counted. The effect of this would be to give elections workers more time to validate and process the ballots and as a result there would be a much larger number ready to tabulate on election day evening.

    Campaigns would be more focused than ever on those who vote late and helping them get their ballot into a drop box by 8pm on election day.

    In most of the counties in the state this change would produce near final results on election day. In huge counties like King, the numbers would still be so large that king would lag behind. But the numbers involved in King would be greatly reduced as they would no longer reflect ballots received after election day. The lag would be caused by the time needed to validate ballots for signature issues and to verify or perhaps resolve under and over votes.

    I am not sure how one party gains over another. Mail from all of King reaches Seattle destinations the next day as long as the pickup deadline is not missed. An extensive system of drop boxes across the county would greatly aid in last minute voting.
    In fact, if King does a better job of placing and advertising drop boxes, than rural or Eastern Wa. counties then this change would create a gain for democratic statewide candidates.

  10. 11

    Particle Man spews:

    N in Seattle: You had me right up to your last statement.
    The fact is that if KC gets more ballots several days prior to when they are getting them now, then they will have the additional time needed to validate ballots so more can be counted on election day.
    Or do we agree?

  11. 12

    spews:

    Particle Man @11,

    Potentially, but only by one day. And that’s only assuming we spend the money on the manpower and infrastructure to process the ballots that pour in during the final days.

    Multnomah County Oregon shows that 76% of ballots were received by the day before the election, the exact same amount KCE received by election day. And the bulk of the remainder in King arrived Wednesday.

    So moving the ballot deadline potentially settles a handful of close races one day sooner, assuming we fund the capacity to count ballots as fast as they come in.

  12. 13

    Lefty Loosey spews:

    I’m definitely not in favor of moving up the deadline; my take on this is that if Gregoire, Reed, et al., don’t like to wait for returns, then they should not have implemented such a system in the first place. This issue is entirely their fault and tightening the deadline is not going to help.

    I’m totally opposed to all mail-in voting and what I want is more ammunition to use against it. What I want to know (and I think this is related to the ‘real problem’) is…what is the current percentage of invalid ballots now, as opposed to when we had polling places? I don’t mean the ballots which were invalidated because some boxes weren’t filled in (as with I-1033), but rather in validating the ballots against signatures. Have the numbers gone up since all mail-in was implemented?

    I really think this issue needs to be thrown into the mix.

    P.S. Good work, Goldy.

  13. 14

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @9 “If everyone else was jumping off the Narrows Bridge would you do it too?”

    Based on Gregoire’s recent performance, I strongly suspect the answer to that is yes.

  14. 15

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @13 “I’m totally opposed to all mail-in voting and what I want is more ammunition to use against it.”

    The reason for all mail-in voting is cost. If you are in favor of poll voting, then you must support higher taxes to pay for running two parallel voting systems. If you’re not willing to pay those extra taxes for those extra costs, then you’re just spouting hot air.

    Prior to all mail-in voting, King County employed 4,000 pollworkers on election days. Those pollworkers earned $9.50 an hour for a 13-hour day. Additionally, they were paid for a required 4-hour training. So, to employ those pollworkers, you need to pony up about $650,000 for each election. That doesn’t count the staff time required to train and supervise them, or the costs of voting machines, rental fees for use of polling places, etc. I don’t have exact figures, but you’re probably close to a million dollars for each election.

    So, to people like you I say, if you want poll voting then put your money where your mouth is. Put up or shut up.

  15. 17

    Particle Man spews:

    Goldy,Multnomah County is Oregon’s smallest and most populous county with over 710,000 residents. Stats from that county do not fit for most counties in our state. The entire county has fewer area and residents than Bellevue.

    We are dealing with two timelines as near as I can tell. The first involves how long it takes to collect the days mail and to determine which ballots need to be held for further examination and which can be opened and readied for counting.
    One day makes a big difference for this timeline.

    The second involves how long it takes to resolve issues with ballots. Manpower alone is not the issue here, since in the case of signature issues a letter is sent out and a reasonable amount of time is given for a reply. Manpower is an issue though as a good deal of time is spent trying to resolve these issues.

    As a result, it is the first timeline that would be shifted to a day prior to election day for a very large number of ballots and allow them to be counted on election day. This in turn would allow even more ballots to be received and processed and counted on election day.

  16. 18

    spews:

    Particle Man,

    Multnomah is the best comparison because it is Oregon’s most populous. But regardless, that’s pretty much the pattern in Oregon.

    And neither Multnomah or Oregon as a whole does a much better job of reporting ballots as overworked King at the first ballot drop, and nobody gets anywhere near counting all the ballots on hand.

    But the big question is… what problem are you trying to solve? Even a 40% is a large enough sample to project the winner in all but a handful of races, and if we managed to expedite processing so that all the ballots on hand could be reported by, say, 11PM, the 76% return would settle a few more. Then by Wednesday night, with 96% reporting, only the rarest of races would still remain undecided.

    I don’t see what the problem is.

  17. 19

    spews:

    RR @ 15

    The reason for all mail-in voting is cost.

    The alleged reason is cost. No one’s ever produced any figures.

    The proponents also claimed that it’d increase security, transparency, and simplify things.

  18. 20

    Lefty Loosey spews:

    #15: Down boy, down. I have no problem paying taxes to support those functions the government is supposed to support (you know, police, fire, highways, elections). We’re actually on the same page.

    At the risk of veering off topic (but I will anyway :) ) I’m angry and frustrated at how the Republicans have, since Reagan, systematically moved to strangle this country to death. They keep screeching “No more taxes” at every opportunity and, as a result, managed to not only castrate the Dems but collectively give them the backbone of a fish fillet. (Sen Majority Leader Hairyless Reed is a case in point). So our education suffers, our infrastructure collapses, our poor starve and die, and our elections lose the transparency they need in order to be credible and legitimate.

    We need to find a way to provide political support and cover to those Dems who are willing to say, “Yes, let’s raise taxes because we need this and this and this, which only the government will provide.”

    We’ve reached the point where we won’t even raise taxes to fight wars!! (Even if they are ones nobody wants.)

  19. 21

    Particle Man spews:

    Me? I’s not pushing this idea. I was only fact checking you.
    As for your 40% figure, I agree now that we are 100% vote by mail. It did not used to be that you could bank of the 40% unless you first looked really close at where the votes counted and uncounted came from within the county or city.

  20. 22

    spews:

    Someone previously commented that Reed’s latest proposal would disenfranchise voters in the military. Keen point.

    Let’s follow that thought.

    Last leg session, Reed claimed we needed internet voting so that our military personnel could vote in a more timely manner. Reed presented zero data to support his case.

    But. Changing the rule from “postmarked by” to “received by” would in fact disenfranchise people in the military. Reed would have the perfect justification for internet voting.

    As we’ve learned from the Bushies:

    1) manufacture a crisis

    2) use the opportunity to ram thru your agenda

    3) profit

  21. 23

    Gwen spews:

    If the big deal is announcing on election night, just require “postmarked by” a week earlier (and a reasonable deadline for dropboxes). “Received by” is an unreasonable standard; voters have no control over “received by” but can meet a “postmarked by” requirement.

    Personally, I think the whole instant-gratification demand on election night is a nonproblem anyway.

  22. 24

    spews:

    RR @ 15

    Some more response…

    So, to employ those pollworkers, you need to pony up about $650,000 for each election.

    Again, I wasn’t given the actual budgets and expendatures, so these are all just observations. (Maybe King County stopped making the cost argument to eliminate the pressure to reveal what the actual costs are.)

    With poll balloting, enough ballots are printed to meet the projected turnout plus 10%. The old sturdy ballots cost about 45 cents each (a guess). $0.45 x 550,000 = $247,500.

    With mail balloting, a ballot kit is sent to all registered active voters. Each ballot kit costs about $2.00 to produce (a guess). 1.2m voters X $2.00 = $2,400,000.

    In King County, postage alone for an all mail ballot election costs about the same as operating the polls. $0.50 X $ 1.2m = $600,000. [*]

    For poll balloting, central count had a few dozen people canvassing the poll returns. I’m guessing they’re done in a few days, if that.

    For mail balloting, central count has lots of people (100? 200?) working for a few weeks. These people get union wages for admin work. $14? $18? Just guessing. 100 people X 40 hours X 4 weeks X $14 = $224,000. (Again, I couldn’t get the real numbers, so these are guesses for this exercise.)

    The regional voting centers and drop off boxes are a non-trivial expenses.

    [*] There’s been talk about not sending mail ballots kits to inactive voters, or some such. To save money. Since vote-by-mail is what the “votes wanted”, it’s hard for me to get worked up when elections officials disenfranchise voters for budgetary reasons.

  23. 25

    SJ on Troll Patrol spews:

    I fail to understand the cost issue.

    Why do we need poll workers if everyone gets their ballot by mail?

    All we should need is secure collection sites.

    If postboxes are already secure, how expensive could it be to place a small number of such secure boxes in a variety of locations?

    Those locations might include signature verification, so ballots could be submitted w/o the cumbersome and expensive cost of having some person open the envelope, etc.

    Because a trained person needs to verify the signatures, ballots would be SUBMITTED, however, only for a brief period, say election day, and at specified collection places.

    This would require few staff and would offer an advantage of keeping folks from voting before the campaigns are completed.

    The only mailed in ballots accepted would be from out of state and these would be required to be postmarked, as now, by midnight.

  24. 26

    Quincy spews:

    So if we require all ballots to be in by election day, in what sense is is really “election day” given that only Pierce County still has poll voting? Wouldn’t it really be more properly called “counting day” or “begin the counting day”?

  25. 27

    uptown spews:

    So where were these folks when we talking about moving to Mail-In balloting? Love to find out what they said before we decided to switch.

    All did this just pop-up because our rulers didn’t like all the progressives being elected this time around?

  26. 28

    rhp6033 spews:

    “Then by Wednesday night, with 96% reporting, only the rarest of races would still remain undecided.”

    Under the old system (where most of the voting was at the polling stations), wouldn’t 96% be pretty close to the results which were usually available around Tuesday night (around midnight)?

    So under the current system, we wait about until about 5:00 p.m. to get the current result?

    Again – this appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

  27. 29

    rhp6033 spews:

    As I mentioned before, the campaigns and their staffs just don’t like the fact that their big election-night party has diminished in importance. The politicians don’t get to trot out on stage to the cheers of their supporters to report that their opponant has just called and conceeded the election. They miss that. Instead, they only get to give a speach around 10:00 p.m. where they say the votes are still being counted, it looks encouraging, and thank everyone for their support.

    The news media also doesn’t like that the diminished importance of election night coverage might mean a loss of local news viewership, especially during the late-night time when most people will watch old movies on the cable networks instead.

    Big whoop. For most of our country’s history, we had to wait a little while to learn the results of an election. It’s not a big deal. Most of us couldn’t care less.

    After all, the results of most of the races will be available by election night anyway. We knew that R-71 passed and I-1033 failed by Tuesday night. We even knew the results in the King County executive race then, only Hutchinson ignored reality and held out for two days before conceeding. Only the Seattle mayoral race was too close to call, and given the narrow gap between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, it still wouldn’t have been called for several days anyway.