Washington must make changes in vote process

Washington state must make major changes in its voting procedures. Otherwise, we could someday have vote-count problems that would make Florida look minor by comparison.

In fact, if it weren’t for Florida, Jay Leno and David Letterman might have decided that Washington’s attempt to figure who it is sending to the U.S. Senate is the funniest thing since O.J.’s hunt for the real perpetrator. There’s still no clear winner in the race between Slade Gorton and Maria Cantwell, and we probably won’t know until at least Friday whether there will be a recount. If so, the retabulation ought to be done and certified by … Dec. 7. That’s a month after the election. Thank heavens that only the control of the U.S. Senate is at stake.

Much of the problem here boils down to our absentee voting procedures. All other states, except New York, require earlier returns of absentee votes. Rather than putting the burden on ourselves to get the ballot back by election day, we simply require people to have their ballots postmarked on election day. And the number of people using permanent absentee ballots is half of the state’s electorate, producing not just delays in the votes being received but also in the counting.

The delays in the general election vote results produce needless uncertainty. As Rep. Dave Schmidt pointed out in an opinion article on Saturday, we are risking even more serious problems with our practice of holding primary elections in September. The short time between the primary and the general election could lead to a situation where our November elections were postponed while a close primary race is sorted out in court. Talk about being a laughingstock: "America is going to vote today, except for Washington state. You know what’s wrong out there — besides their coffee addictions? They are still trying to feel their way through the fog. Say, did you hear what the Washington voter said to …"

Schmidt, other legislators and retiring Secretary of State Ralph Munro have tried to move the primary election earlier in the year. The Florida situation and the tight results in our state have added momentum to the idea. Indeed, besides the Senate race, the voting for Munro’s successor is also undecided, as are some legislative races. The alarms are ringing all over the place.

Proposals to move the primary to June make a great deal of sense. That works well in other parts of the country. And it would allow ample time for ballot preparation, reducing the danger of mistakes.

Lawmakers have balked, in part because they worry about bumping into state restrictions on campaign fund raising in the first 30 days after a legislative session. Legislators ought to think less about their own campaign funds and more about the state’s welfare. Suggestions of an August or a July primary shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, however. The rise of absentee balloting could make a summer primary election much more viable than it would have been in the past. Somehow, though, an earlier date must be found.

As Gov. Gary Locke remarked the other day, the delayed counts create tension for the candidates and their supporters. Worse, as Florida has shown the world, uncertainty can strain everyone. The next session of the Legislature must take lessons from the great election mess of 2000.

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