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.