Washington State Waiting Game Should Open Discussion of a Return to Polling Place Voting

Two key races in Washington State appear headed to razor-thin finishes, but official results may not be certified until as far off as next week because of the nearly universal mail-in voting in the Evergreen State.

As of the latest reported count, Republican Dino Rossi currently trails incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray by nearly 14,000 votes. Although the margin gives Murray a 0.98 percent edge In the race between incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen and Republican challenger John Koster in the 2nd Congressional District, the deadlock is nearly identical in scale but with Koster leading by 1,429 votes.

If the counting ending today in those contests, neither finish would trigger an automatic recount under state election law. But the predominantly mail-in voting process makes any effort to put a definite number on how many votes are still uncounted, conceivably leaving space for election abuse, and certainly leaving voters and candidates hanging.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office—the authority that will ultimately certify this election as official—is as much in the dark as the rest of us about how much counting remains. In an email to Seattlepi.com, spokesman Dave Ammon explains the black box effect from widespread use of mail-in voting, saying, “No one knows how many ballots are left to count, since large volumes are in the mail and final return rate isn’t knowable.”

Ammon is right. Pinning down the point at which all ballots are like chasing a rainbow. The process forces intelligent observers to resort to pin-the-tail-in-the-winner election day guesswork. From the same article Seattlepi.com’s Chris Grygiel:

Exact numbers are tricky to come by, but we’ll take a stab. Prior to the election, the secretary of state estimated that about 60 percent of the total vote would be tallied Nov. 2. That would leave about 572,000 ballots remaining. King County officials say there could be about 350,000 votes still to count from the state’s largest county, which Murray was winning by more than a 60 percent margin.

Grygiel should not be faulted for taking a “stab” at a total number of ballots remaining—they’re not using a methodology much different than what the campaigns and election officials are using, and his logic has no faults. Guesstimates are all observers have, but it should concern voters that accountability for an exact count boils down to best guesses and statistics (which, by definition are not exact) of how many ballots were actually cast.

The sort of imprecision that is inherent in mail-in voting would not be tolerated by a shop owner closing out their register for the day. Should it be tolerated in a process of voting that ultimately affects movements of billions, nay trillions, of dollars?

Polling place voting, despite being slightly more costly to administer, contains multiple safeguards to prevent abuse. Voters are checked off the rolls as they present identification to receive ballots in precincts they are eligible to vote in. Codes from ballot stubs are assigned to a specific voter on the roll. Ballots are handed directly to the counting official, and the entire process is conducted in the plain view of the local community and subject to bipartisan observation and inspection. At the end of the night, the number of ballots issued is compared with ballots counted, this reconciliation performed at the polling place and before officials submit their counts to be included with the large tally. Any discrepancies trigger a series of firewall measures to ensure that all ballots were counted and no additional ballots were given out.

In the current system, the only numbers that can be known for certain is the number of ballots mailed to voters and the number of ballots received by county elections offices, but ballots received is not equivalent to ballots cast by voters.

For now, Washington will have to endure another waiting game of indefinite length, not knowing when the very last ballot will be tallied.