Callaghan: Accommodate Washington voters, not political insiders

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Now that Washington has completed its gradual slide into all-mail voting, abandoning the ritual of Election Day voting at polling places, we need a new tradition. But what could possibly replace the Norman Rockwell-esque gathering at the polls, the greetings among neighbors, the shared exercise of one of our most-cherished rights?

How about communal complaining about the slowness of the vote count? Twitter has been atwitter with whining about how long it takes to count. The Seattle Times put it into print by asserting that "Washington is the slowest vote-counting state in the country," apparently unaware that Florida had yet to say which presidential candidate carried the state, apparently oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of Washington races and issues were resolved Election Night.

Who is to blame? The elections officials who force-marched the entire state into all vote by mail? The legislators who went along with it? The news media that consider it the epitome of modernity? Nope. Apparently it's the voters' fault. Too many of them, it seems, wait "until the last minute" to mail their ballots. And because Washington law requires only that ballots be postmarked on or before Election Day, this legalized tardiness contributes to the long vote-counting period.

The complaints (mostly from insiders) lead to calls for "reform." Like Oregon, we must demand that voters get their ballots delivered to the vote counters by Election Day. Before we get to why that is not a necessary response, let's figure out why Washington's vote-counting is different. We're not slower than most other states because of the ballot deadline. We're slower than most other states because most other states still rely heavily on poll voting on Election Day.

Say what you want about this means of voting, it results in rapid resolution of elections. Voters are identified by poll workers. Their signatures are recorded. Their votes are collected electronically as they are cast. The storage unit is taken to election headquarters and quickly downloaded. Meaningful results are released before the 11 o'clock news.

All of these states allow some vote by mail. And an increasing number permit voters to show up at voting centers up to three weeks before the election and cast their ballot. This hybrid system gives voters options and still produces rapid and accurate results.

This isn't meant to refight the battle over all-mail elections. It is meant, instead, to show that counting delays are the result of the new voting system as well as political decisions to cap the size of the vote-counting apparatus so as to spend less money on elections.

Extremely early voting

Imagine if we follow the lead of the hand-wringers and adopt their solution to a problem that really isn't a problem? Voters in Washington might have to vote up to a week before the election to make sure their ballot arrives by Election Day. That isn't a knock on the mail service, but we've all had instances where a piece of mail took longer than it should have.

Voters outside the state, especially those in the military, would have to mail ballots even earlier. Rather than make early voting an option like in other states, we'd make it a necessity. Worse, it could cause the disqualification of hundreds of thousands of votes cast by those too trusting of the U.S. mail.

All of this runs counter to the increasing preference of Washington voters to wait until the normal end of the campaign to return their ballots. If the change is made, the only option for these voters would be to drive to collection centers and hand-deliver their ballot, turning vote by mail into vote by car.

Here's the bottom line: Requiring ballots to be in-hand by Election Day rather than postmarked would increase inconvenience for voters so as to decrease inconvenience for elections officials and reduce frustration for political insiders. Thankfully, both finalists for secretary of state are on record opposing such a change.