OLYMPIA — It’s well known that in Washington state, elections often don’t end on election night, because the state’s vote-by-mail system ensures that any close race will be unsettled for days afterward.
But one measure introduced by Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, would require ballots on election night to be processed and counted until midnight, unless there are no more ballots on hand to count. However, because current law only requires that ballots be postmarked by Election Day, many voters drop ballots in the mail or into special drop boxes that day, meaning the forms often don’t reach election officials for several more days. The system usually leaves about half of the vote outstanding at the end of the night.
During this past election in November, all of the state’s counties — except for Pierce, which did three — did one count shortly after the 8 p.m. “poll close” deadline and then resumed tally updates in the following days and weeks. The governor’s race wasn’t called until the end of election week, and other races that were too close to call went even longer.
Van De Wege said after increasingly longer election cycles end, voters “want to know it’s over and what the results are.”
Van De Wege said he’s not looking to change the postmark deadline, saying that “there’s good and bad points” to the current system. He said he leans more toward continuing to allow people to mail in their ballots on Election Day.
“The aim is to try and get those results a little faster,” he said.
Van De Wege’s bill is set to have a hearing Thursday before the House Government Operations &Elections Committee.
Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, and ranking Republican on the committee, said that potential costs to the counties was just one of his concerns about the bill.
“Working on ballots and going late into the night, you’re apt to see more incidents of mistakes,” he said.
Rep. Sam Hunt, a Democrat from Olympia who is chairman of the committee, said auditors may be concerned about costs related with working later on election night, “but I think they could probably pay about the same money and they’d have fewer hours counting at the end.” Counties have two weeks to certify a primary election or special election and three weeks to certify a general election.
But Secretary of State Kim Wyman said that she didn’t think the extra hours on election night would give definitive results, noting that there is a multi-step process required for processing ballots and validating signatures before they can be counted that naturally slows down the process.
“I’m not sure you’re going to have any more meaningful results at 1 a.m., but you’ll spend more money getting there,” she said. “You can’t have fast and accurate and low cost.”
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said that there’s no way to count every ballot in hand on election night, due to the steps they need to take to give voters a second chance if they didn’t sign their envelope or if their signature doesn’t match.
“We can either have results on election night and tell voters `tough luck if you don’t get it right, you’ve thrown your vote away,’ or it can take a little longer, and we can give those voters a second choice to have their vote counted the way they intended,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Washington state is one of more than two dozen states that allow voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse like illness, disability or travel. Numerous other states, like Florida, allow early voting at poll sites, along with absentee ballots. Most no-excuse absentee states, including Oregon, which is also 100 percent vote-by-mail, require ballots to be in by the time the polls close on Election Day, if not earlier.
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who is chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee, said she’s supportive of Van De Wege’s bill, which would end up before her committee if it passes the House. She also said she’s introducing her own bill within the next week that would require ballots to be in by Election Day, like in Oregon.
“There are a lot of ways we can get our results sooner,” she said.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said she’s not personally opposed to the postmark change, saying that it’s a more simplified message for voters and adds clarity. But, she stressed that even that change wouldn’t substantially speed up election results because of all of the security measures workers take.
“We’re never going to get to a point in a vote-by-mail state where you’re going to know before you go to bed who has won or lost a race in a close race,” she said.
The measure is House Bill 1102.