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Monday, November 5, 2012

No, Washington's Postmarked-By Ballot Deadline Has Nothing to Do with How Slowly We Count Our Ballots

Posted by on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 11:12 AM

If there's one thing we know in advance of election night it's that we won't know for sure on election night who won a bunch of state and local races (although we'll know a helluva lot more on election night than most reporters and pundits will be willing to let on). The culprit is Washington's all vote-by-mail system, which despite its many virtues, dramatically slows down the vote tallying process. Statewide, only about 60 percent of the total vote will be tallied on election night; in King County, somewhat less than that.

Predictably, this imminent uncertainty is once again leading to calls for moving Washington's ballot deadline from postmarked by election day to received by election day. "It doesn't have to be this way," complains Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center. Making the change, argues the Columbian, would give Washington "the potential of reporting virtually all ballots soon after voting ends."

But setting aside the question of whether it is worth making it harder to vote for the sake of knowing the results sooner, as I've repeatedly explained, 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 well illustrated by the 2010 general election, in which the 641,658 ballots King County reported tallied by the close of business the Monday following the election only slightly surpassed the 619,485 mail-in ballots it had received by the time the polls closed the prior Tuesday. 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.

About 77 percent of ballots are typically received by election day, about 97 percent are received by the day after. Do the math and explain to me how the ballot deadline has anything to do with Washington's 60 percent election night tally?

With a peak processing capacity of little more than 75,000 ballots a day, the 373,941 ballots King County tallied on election night, 2010, 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.

That's the bottleneck: The time it takes to verify signatures. And shifting the ballot deadline won't change that. In fact a look at ballot return statistics in Oregon—which does set a received by deadline—shows almost the exact same percentage of ballots received by the Friday before the election as are received here in Washington with our postmarked by deadline. All we would achieve by shifting the ballot deadline would be to concentrate ballot receipt into the final two days of the election rather than the final two days, and the day after. But that on its own won't speed up the election night tally.

No, the real difference between Washington and Oregon is that Oregon devotes more resources to ballot counting. Oregon's offices generally work through the weekend before the election, processing ballots, and continue counting throughout election night and into the morning. In Washington, we drop one report at 8:15 p.m., and then everybody goes home.

We could speed up ballot counting by devoting more resources, but that would cost money. Instead, every year we're offered the same ill-conceived solution to solve a problem that doesn't really exist.


Comments (11) RSS

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Occupy Seattle 11
So our second favorite ALEC funded Tea Party group Washington Policy Center speaks out (our FAVORITE being Freedom Foundation, the home of voter suppression, Koch Brothers style). So does Jason Mercier have anything to say about King County Republicans going around snatching up our ballots in black vans? And what is his position on voter suppression? For it? Against it? For it only as long as Republicans don't get caught with their hands in the cookie jar?
Posted by Occupy Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 8:55 PM · Report this
Soupytwist 10
@9 - But what about syphilis ham?
Posted by Soupytwist on November 5, 2012 at 3:33 PM · Report this
TVDinner 9
I like the idea of votes being cured like ham or syphilis.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on November 5, 2012 at 3:11 PM · Report this
Goldy 8
@3 I'm working on a post that addresses that, but in brief, a human compares the signature to one a digitized one on file. If they're not sure, it goes to a specialist who examines more closely. If the signature is rejected, the voter will be notified, and has three weeks after election day to respond. About 2 percent of KC ballots are rejected, and about half of those are ultimately "cured".
Posted by Goldy on November 5, 2012 at 2:58 PM · Report this
"About 77 percent of ballots are typically received by election day, about 97 percent are received by the day after. [...] That's the bottleneck: The time it takes to verify signatures."

Our vote by mail ballot design includes a ballot, inside a security/privacy envelope, inside the return envelope with the signature on the outside. If the bottleneck is actually signature verification, there is no reason that any number of systems/processes could not be employed that would allow them to verify signatures prior to closing the polls without loosing the ability to track or revoke a ballot by identified voter without violating the secrecy/anonymity of the ballot.

Why don't we do this better?
Posted by I'm From The Government, And I'm Here To Help You on November 5, 2012 at 2:02 PM · Report this
TVDinner 6
@5: You mean I hafta read, too? Whatevs.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on November 5, 2012 at 1:47 PM · Report this
internet_jen 5
@3 - I think humans check the signatures and then scan the ballots through the vote tally machines. Well, based on the ST article linked.
Posted by internet_jen on November 5, 2012 at 12:30 PM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 4
@2 Better than w/ garlic & rosaries...
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on November 5, 2012 at 12:23 PM · Report this
TVDinner 3
"Math." Everyone knows that math only matters to pencil-necked geeks. We're Americans, and we're better than math.

Incidentally, what's involved with signature verification? Does a computer flag suspicious signatures for a human being to look at? What criteria are used to verify a signature? For example, I'm ambidextrous, and my signature looks very different depending on which hand I use. I always use my right for legal documents, but what if I wanted to change it up and use my left?
Posted by TVDinner http:// on November 5, 2012 at 12:18 PM · Report this
Goldy 2
@1 I fully understand. I'm just choosing to counter them with math.
Posted by Goldy on November 5, 2012 at 12:04 PM · Report this
Goldy - You simply don't understand that the reason guys like Jason Mercier want to move back the date has nothing to do with knowing the result. They want to limit voting full stop. If they can shave off a few days it is to conservatives benefit.

Nothing more nothing less.
Posted by brokejumper on November 5, 2012 at 11:41 AM · Report this

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