Mail-in ballots rob election night of excitement

The newsroom at The Herald buzzes on election night with pizza-fueled, adrenaline-packed, stress-drenched excitement.

Vote totals arrive, phones start ringing and fingers clack away on keyboards.

Before mail-in balloting, election results would trickle into the newsroom, creating tension for reporters trying to find out what the story of the night might be.

Often, races would flip-flop with the release of each new round of vote totals.

“You were thinking, ‘Hey I’ve got a trend line,’” veteran Herald reporter Eric Stevick said. “And then the trend line would vaporize.”

Six years ago, Snohomish County opted for vote-by-mail. That means ballots get sent to voters weeks before Election Day. The majority of voters turn in their ballots early.

This year, every county in Washington will conduct mail-in balloting; Pierce County had been the lone holdout.

The change has affected how The Herald and other news organizations cover elections. And it has robbed election night of some of the excitement as county election offices now produce a single tally of numbers for the evening.

“A lot of the three-hour drama of the evening is gone, but it does give you more time to get ahold of candidates and get their reaction,” Stevick said. “It certainly doesn’t have the drama it once had.”

Snohomish County sends out ballots two and a half weeks before the election, said Garth Fell, the county elections manager.

In the general elections during the past six years, Fell said, on average about 18 percent of the voters return their ballots in the first week. Another 27 percent return their ballots in the second week.

About 25 percent return their ballots on the weekend before or the days leading up to the election. The remainder arrives at the elections office sometimes days afterward.

Before mail-in balloting, newspapers could plan coverage of races with a series of profiles, analyses and other stories. The coverage of the most important races generally tended to arrive the weekend before the election.

With so many people voting early now, The Herald attempts to have a story on each race before the ballots get shipped out.

It’s less than ideal.

While coverage continues up until the election, profiles on races could be written and published weeks before voters actually turn in their ballots.

Are the stories arriving when voters are focused on the election? Herald political reporter and columnist Jerry Cornfield worries they are not.

“Voters pay attention when they pay attention,” Cornfield said. “You can’t figure out when they’ll pay attention. For all the analysis, it’s still half of the people don’t vote until the last 72 hours.”

It’s something that Stevick has noted as well.

“I’m so torn. You have your early voters, but you have folks who hang on until the day before the election,” Stevick said. “I hope they use our website to track down stories that we’ve written a month before the election.

“We don’t have the luxury to run stories twice both for the early voter and the later voter.”

The Herald’s editorial department faces the same dilemma. That department, which is separate from the news department, runs most of its endorsements before the ballots are mailed.

Peter Jackson, editorial page editor, said it would be best to run the endorsements as late as possible so that the editorial board can see how candidates fare under the pressures of running campaigns.

Still he believes the editorial board has an obligation to get its opinion on the issues that matter to readers before they vote.

“I think if something substantial happens, I think we always reserve the right to revisit the endorsement,” Jackson said.

How elections are reported on Election Day has changed as well.

“I think the main difference is that we don’t get to go out to polling places and interview people about why they voted the way they did,” Stevick said. “I always found that to be some wonderful insight.”

It’s difficult to write some stories on election night with any type of finality. The single tally of numbers on election night doesn’t always show how a race will end, Cornfield said. He noted that close elections can and do change.

He pointed to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen trailing opponent John Koster on election night in 2010 before eventually pulling out a win in the 2nd Congressional District.

Or Mike Hope behind his opponent Liz Loomis in their race in 2008 for the 44th Legislative District in southeast Snohomish County. That race eventually ended in a recount with Hope winning.

That has created a different vibe at the election-night parties of candidates and their volunteers, Cornfield said.

“You can’t celebrate if you don’t know the results,” Cornfield said. “You can only celebrate the conclusion of the campaign. If you don’t know the winner for eight, nine or 10 days, it’s kind of hard to be festive.”

Each week, Here at The Herald provides an inside peek at the newspaper. Is there something you would like to know? Email executive editor Neal Pattison at npattison@heraldnet.com.

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