Shut Up! Shut Up! Shut Up!
Shut Up About Changing the Ballot Deadline!
The polls hadn't yet closed before our state's editorialists started complaining about how long it would take to count the ballots. "Oregon has a better way," cried the Olympian. "It doesn't have to be this way," wailed an impatient Seattle Times.
Poor babies can't wait for the ballots to be counted. Jesus, what a bunch of fucking whiners.
The solution to speeding up our election results, they relentlessly argue, is to follow Oregon's lead and move our ballot deadline from postmarked by Election Day to received by Election Day. It is a plan that would disenfranchise thousands of late voters whose ballots get delayed in the mail, or who lack transportation to drop boxes, or who are simply confused by the imperative to vote before Election Day. And it is a plan that is based on a stupid, lazy argument that is simply not supported by the facts: It's not the ballot deadline that's the bottleneck—it's the ballot processing—a conclusion that should be obvious to anyone who's bothered to look at the stats.
Take, for example, King County Elections (KCE), which counted 556,083 ballots on election night. That was only marginally more than the 521,786 it had received by the Friday before the election. In fact, it took three more days of counting just for KCE to catch up with the 749,097 ballots it already had on hand election night, let alone begin to work through the 147,744 ballots that arrived the next day. Statewide, Washington tallied on election night only about two-thirds of the ballots it had on hand.
So how could moving the ballot deadline speed up the results? It can't.
At peak capacity, KCE can process about 75,000 ballots during a regular eight-hour shift, far short of the 85,592 ballots that arrived the Monday before the election and the 131,071 that arrived on Tuesday. Pushing Wednesday's 147,744 ballots a day earlier would've only added to the backlog.
And that's exactly what happens in Oregon, where voters are just as last-minute as voters here.
Oregon's largest county, Multnomah, recorded 55 percent turnout on the Monday before the election—comparable to King County's 52 percent, Kitsap County's 58 percent, Pierce County's 57 percent, and so on. In both states, about 70 percent of ballots cast are received by the day before the election. The difference is that Oregon receives the remainder of its ballots by Election Day, while 98 percent of Washington's ballots are received by the day after.
So how does Oregon manage to count its ballots faster? It doesn't. It just keeps counting. Both King and Multnomah tallied about 60 percent of ballots cast shortly after the polls closed Tuesday night. But Multnomah released additional returns at 8:55 p.m., 10:26 p.m., 12:09 a.m., 3:48 a.m., 8:23 a.m., 12:02 p.m., and 4:56 p.m. That's the equivalent of three additional shifts in the span King County ran one.
Washington could work its elections staff the way Oregon does, but to what end? Only 9 percent of voters said they were "dissatisfied" with the pace of returns in a recent KCE survey. After all, a 60 percent election night return is a pretty big statistical sample, leaving very few races too close to call.
But even if we made these changes, that still wouldn't quiet the whiners. About 17 percent of ballots require additional processing due to signature problems, voter errors, damaged ballots, and other issues. These are the votes that trickle in for weeks.
That is the nature of an all vote-by-mail system.
So shut up already about ballot deadlines. The notion that Washington's slow vote count is due to late-arriving ballots is simply false.