The dark side of mail-in voting

By JOHN HUGHES

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Washington state and Oregon have bent over backward to give residents the opportunity to vote.

It’s so easy, in fact, that voters don’t even have to go to the polls. Mail-in and absentee ballots can be filled in at the kitchen table. In Washington, they don’t have to be dropped in the mail until Election Day.

But the election was Tuesday, and voters in both states are still waiting to find out who won some major races.

"We’re so darn convenient we can’t count," quipped James Moore, a political science professor at the University of Portland. "It’s the dark side of mail balloting."

It might take two weeks to determine whether GOP Sen. Slade Gorton won re-election against Democrat Maria Cantwell in Washington state. The candidates waited for counties to tally 600,000 absentee ballots.

In Oregon, the only state in the nation to conduct an all-mail election, it was taking days for officials to determine whether Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore won the state’s seven electoral votes.

The waiting may be inconvenient for voters, but it can be agonizing for candidates and their supporters.

If Washington state voters’ ballots had to reach election officials on or before Election Day, "It would be much quicker and faster to count them," said Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for Gorton. "We would know by now."

The slow count is drawing attention from officeholders.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he would sponsor legislation in Congress to have a bipartisan national commission examine how federal elections are conducted. Among other things, DeFazio said, the commission would examine whether new technology could help states tabulate votes more quickly. And Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said there needs to be a comprehensive review of Oregon’s balloting to look for ways to tabulate votes more quickly.

Election officials acknowledge they narrowly avoided a circus this year in the presidential race. If a few other states had voted differently, and Washington state’s presidential race had been closer, the nation could have been waiting on the Pacific Northwest — rather than Florida — to determine the next president.

But there is no easy solution for speeding up returns, officials said.

Paddy McGuire, chief of staff for Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, said the reason it takes time to tally Oregon ballots is that election officials may double- and triple-check signatures on ballots to be sure they are authentic.

"We’ve made a judgment here to balance the convenience to voters and the need to protect against fraud," he said.

In Washington state, some argue voters should be required to have their absentee ballots reach election officials by Election Day the same requirement Oregonians face.

However, Gary McIntosh, state elections director for the Washington secretary of state’s office, said he was inundated with calls from reporters, party officials and candidates — but he did not hear from a single voter.

"I don’t think that most voters for the most part see this as an issue," McIntosh said. "For a lot of voters they’re willing to wait to find out who won."

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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