Oops! One week after 16-year Seattle City Council incumbent Richard Conlin claimed an election night victory with a seemingly invincible 7.5 percent margin, his socialist challenger, Kshama Sawant, stunningly grabbed the lead. When The Stranger went to press Tuesday night, Sawant was narrowly leading Conlin by 41 votes, 49.91 percent to 49.88 percent.
Conlin's 6,136-vote election night cushion had been dwindling all week as late ballots trended hard in Sawant's favor: Sawant won 49.9 percent of the batch of ballots counted on Wednesday, 54.2 percent of Thursday's batch, and 56.5 percent of Friday's. The Tuesday, November 12, batch continued the trend, going 57.4 percent in Sawant's favor.
With about 12 percent of the ballots still left to count, the margin is too narrow to call the race. But I'm calling it anyway: Sawant wins!
To understand my confidence, you need to understand the way ballots are counted in our all-vote-by-mail elections. Ballots are processed over a six-week period, from the day ballots are mailed, which is three weeks before Election Day, until certification three weeks after. Ballots are generally processed in the order in which they arrive, but with two-thirds of voters procrastinating until the last minute, King County Elections (KCE) eventually falls far behind.
That's why KCE's election night results generally consist of only those ballots that had arrived by the previous Friday, plus a portion of those that arrived Monday. Later batches reflect results from later arriving ballots. So if an election breaks hard for one candidate in the final days, we should see that trend in the later tallies.
And that's exactly what happened in the Conlin-Sawant race, where late voters proved more liberal and discontented with the status quo than their early-voting counterparts.
Part of that has to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant's impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant's favor.
But whatever the reasons, voters simply broke hard for Sawant, and there's no reason to expect the remaining ballots to break hard the other way.
Yes, a disproportionate chunk of the uncounted ballots are those that need further processing due to damage or voter error (wrong color pen, stray marks, failure to fill in circles). But these are predominantly late ballots, too. And about 2 percent of ballots were challenged due to missing or mismatched signatures; as these are "cured," they get pulled into the tally in no particular order.
But in both cases, these ballots are likely to lean toward Sawant, who drew support from younger, poorer, immigrant, and first-time voters—all groups that tend to have a little more difficulty filling out ballots. (It's the same reason Democrats tend to pick up votes in recounts.) And of the two candidates, only Sawant has recruited hundreds of volunteers to do "ballot rehabilitation."
KCE notifies voters with challenged ballots to fill out and return a signed affidavit so their ballots can be counted. But only about half of challenged voters normally comply. That would leave about 1 percent of voters—nearly 2,200 in Seattle this election—with ballots that will not be counted.
Campaigns can request lists of challenged voters from KCE, but only Sawant has the people power (about 200 volunteers, the campaign tells me) to knock on doors, ask if they voted for Sawant, and then collect the signed affidavit necessary to count the vote. The Sawant campaign says it collected 150 affidavits after three days of canvassing. The Conlin campaign merely sent out an e-mail asking supporters to check to see if their ballots had been counted.
That's already a 150-vote advantage for Sawant in results to come. And while subsequent batches may not trend as hard toward Sawant as her initial post-election surge, there is no reason to expect the final count to swing back in Conlin's favor.
But even a narrow loss would prove a stunning turnaround for Sawant and a shocking disruption to Seattle's staid political establishment. Between Conlin's apparent defeat at the hands of a socialist and the landslide win for district elections, "the world has been turned upside down on the second floor," one city hall insider told me. District elections will put all nine council members up for reelection in two years, while potentially pitting three pairs of incumbents against each other. And facing the prospect of a rematch against Sawant in District 3, which includes the lefty neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and the Central District, Conlin, then the presumptive winner, announced a day after the election that he would not seek another term.
Now it looks like his retirement could begin two years early. The election will be certified November 25.