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Monday, November 5, 2012

Why We Won't Have a Final Vote Count in Washington State on Tuesday Night (And Why We Will Have a Solid Projection in Close Races)

Posted by on Mon, Nov 5, 2012 at 11:27 AM

One of the side-effects of the move to all-mail balloting in Washington State is that, because ballots can be mailed right up to Election Day, we never know the final vote count on the night of the election.

That's a bummer for people who like a cliffhanger with a speedy resolution, and it's especially a bummer in King County, which, because of its large size, is in a position to swing a lot of statewide results (and, because of its proportionally large number of procrastinators, may not fully reveal which way it's swinging the election until the end of this week, or even the beginning of next week).

You say: Ack! So we won't know the result in our super-close race for governor on Tuesday night? What about R-74, the marriage equality measure? And I-502, the pot legalization initiative? Will we have to wait for those, too?

Enter numbers whiz Matt Barreto of the nonpartisan Washington Poll, who is promising to take tomorrow's 8:15 p.m. vote count announcement from King County (which will be King County's only vote count announcement of the night, and only a partial count at that); and then combine King County's results with the results from all the other counties (which should be closer to final counts, hopefully); and then run all those numbers through some fancy mathematical procedures; and then issue a projection in certain statewide races around 9 p.m. or so.


Here's how Barreto explains what he and his colleagues will be doing:

On Election Night, every single county will not only report the election results, but they will also give us a very strong hint of the final election results.

That is because every single county will provide an estimate of how many votes they have remaining to count. They will tell us how many they have processed so far, and given the estimates of 81% turnout by Secretary of State Sam Reed, we can forecast a reliable estimate of how many more ballots will be from each county. Historically, election data has shown that the Yes/No or Dem/Rep vote within each county is very stable from election night to the final tally. However, the smaller counties across our state have far fewer votes to count, and they can count their ballots more quickly on Tuesday, November 6th.

In contrast, King County is the slowest to count its ballots because of the overwhelming volume of ballots it has to count. What that means is that of the ballots not counted on election night—those that still remain to be counted on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday—a disproportionate share of those come from King County. In fact, many counties are done counting by Wednesday whereas King County continues to process and count ballots for a full week after the election.

In 2009, the Ref-71 margin on Election Night was 51.1% yes, however the final tally was 53.2%, an increase of over 2 points. This same trend has been found in every single election since 2006 that I have analyzed, with no exceptions, and it is entirely the result of King County having to count almost 900,000 ballots which takes a very, very long time.

We have to wait until every single county has posted their final counts on Tuesday night—but once all the data are in Tuesday night, we can very easily forecast what the final numbers will be.


Comments (10) RSS

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Joe Szilagyi 1
So the short version is that if the things we want to see passed are passing tomorrow (74, 502, Inslee) then the historical and mathematical trends are that unless there is an act of God, they'll finish passing.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on November 5, 2012 at 11:31 AM · Report this
Eli Sanders 2
@1: Basically, yes.
Posted by Eli Sanders on November 5, 2012 at 11:42 AM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 3
@2 this is why God hates statistics, Nate Silver, and gay marijuana.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on November 5, 2012 at 11:53 AM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 4
Of course those that wait until 11:59pm on Tuesday to vote are so undecided between the Radical Socialist Religious Nutcase Hates Equality and Women candidate and Obama.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on November 5, 2012 at 12:06 PM · Report this
With all due respect to Barreto & crew ...

1) Every single county will provide an estimate of how many votes they have remaining to count, but these estimates are NOT notably accurate on election night - and in some cases are out of whack right up to the last votes are counted;
2) Historically, election data has shown that the Yes/No or Dem/Rep vote within each county ARE NOT very stable from election night to the final tally;
3) a disproportionate share of [ballots not yet counted] come from King County, but this is NOT a dominant share of such ballots;
4) Given the estimates of 81% turnout by Secretary of State Sam Reed, we are factoring another unreliable number into the model.

Cranking and crunching these numbers myself in close races, (countywide and statewide), I have seen a number of cases where the early returns so treated - and the late returns as well - produced wobbly projections.

Still, I'm glad I can shun requests for such analysis, and just tell anxious cliffhangers "go look here" instead.
Posted by RonK, Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 1:19 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 6
So that is why so many people are voting for free at the Red Square ballot location for King County Elections.

Either that or the HotDawgs ...
Posted by Will in Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 1:26 PM · Report this
This mostly works ok unless there are late developments in a race that would make later ballots skewed one direction or another (ex: Sanders' state supreme court loss). But for very, very close races, the number of outstanding ballots matters: counties only report a) ballots on hand (lots more arrive after election day) and b) their estimate of what the total turnout will be (which usually doesn't have better than +/- 2% accuracy). It will be nice to have the projections available, but they won't be any more accurate than the statistics feeding the model. And not (much) more accurate than the past mathsy slog commenters' projections using the same limited information.
Posted by G g on November 5, 2012 at 2:27 PM · Report this

I'll go farther. In recent elections, late-arriving ballots have been more Democratic than the earlier ballots statewide.

I tracked results for a few days in 2010 (thankfully, I didn't have to repeat the epic series of reports I wrote in 2004). There was a very consistent increase in Patty Murray's percentages, and it was by no means limited to King County. Here's something I wrote on Friday, Nov 5, 2010:
Based on the results reported on the Washington Secretary of State's website through Wednesday, and extrapolating each county's current Murray and Rossi percentages to include the county's waiting-for-processing ballots, my projection for the final result has risen to 52.0% to 48.0%. Compare that to yesterday's projection of 50.9%-49.1% (narrower than today's actual margin) and the Tuesday projection of 50.3%-49.7%. Yes, these have been two excellent days for Patty Murray!

The final result, BTW, was even better than my projection in that report (52.4% to 47.6%).

Patty's King County percentage through Wed had been 62.6%, but she took in 68.3% on Thu. Similar outcomes were seen in Snohomish (51.5% Tue-Wed to 52.8% Thu), Whatcom (51.0% to 54.9%), and even Klickitat (41.4% Tue-Wed, but 52.9% on Thu). All in all, Murray's percentage on Thu topped her previous county-specific percentage in 16 of the 22 counties reporting that day.

It wasn't just Murray either. Rick Larsen trailed John Koster Tuesday night (49.6% to 50.4%); Stephen Colbert even included Larsen in a piece about defeated Reps whose districts he'd "better known". But Larsen got 53.2% of the Wed-Thu ballots. And only one or two King County precincts were in the old WA-02.

Some LD races also flipped (always R to D) between Tue night and the final result -- Luis Moscoso (1st), Roger Goodman (45th), Rodney Tom (48th). King County, to be sure, though most of LD-01 was in Snohomish.

Bottom line -- Barreto is soft-pedaling the effect. I suspect he's also taking the trends I've outlined into account, even if he doesn't say so.
Posted by N in Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 2:57 PM · Report this
N @ 8 -- Yea, even without "late developments", different tranches of ballots from the same county act like distinguishably distinct populations. I've seen the trend change direction and change back again. Adding to the complexity, not everybody processes ballots first-in-first-out every cycle.

I'll follow Barreto's results with interest, and I'm curious how much "secret sauce" (if any) he uses in his mix.
Posted by RonK, Seattle on November 5, 2012 at 4:02 PM · Report this
So, I'm still looking for the results of these projections by Matt Barreto. It's about 10:20, and I can't find any evidence of them on the google. Do you know where they are?
Posted by rnoble on November 6, 2012 at 10:21 PM · Report this

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