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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Camden: Washington election performance earns high marks

By Jim Camden
Published: April 15, 2014, 5:00pm

When a good-government group last week rated the states’ election procedures, Washington received respectable but not stellar marks, while neighboring Idaho was close to the bottom.

The Pew Charitable Trust ranked Washington as having the 12th-best electoral performance in the last presidential election. Idaho, it said, had the 46th. (Oregon ranked 23rd).

Before people start wringing their hands about the need to hire a tutor to bring Washington’s grades to Top 5 or grounding Idaho until it does better, it’s important to remember these lists are subjective and somewhat contrived to emphasize things the folks at Pew think are important. That’s not necessarily what the general public would think is important.

For example, one score in the Pew ranking is for turnout. Washington is credited with a turnout of 65 percent in the 2012 presidential election, which may come as a shock to anyone who recalls state officials describing it as 81.25 percent. That 16-point difference isn’t a result of bad math, but is because Pew uses a different formula.

State elections officials use the old-fashioned method: Take the number of ballots cast, divide them by the number of registered voters in the state, and that’s your turnout. Or in the case of Washington, which votes by mail, your turn-in. It’s a precise number.

Folks at Pew do it differently. They divide the number of ballots cast by the number of people in the state who could be eligible to vote, whether they’re registered or not. That’s a less precise number because it requires a bit of guessing: The Census Bureau estimates the number of people who are 18 or older, minus non-citizens but including those living in the state long enough to qualify for a ballot and not barred from voting because of a felony in their past.

Easy to register

Some academics and good-government types prefer that formula because of concerns that some people don’t register because states make it too hard.

The problem with that formula, at least when applied to Washington, is that registering to vote has never been easier. You can go to the courthouse. You can pick up a form at many government offices. You can print one out from the Internet. You can fill one out online or when getting a driver’s license or applying for state aid.

Pew estimates about 16 percent of eligible citizens in Washington aren’t registered to vote. A cynic might say most of those wouldn’t register without a gun to the head, and even then they wouldn’t vote. But there are things that good-government groups would like states to do, such as allowing people to register to vote on Election Day and then cast a ballot. Washington has so far resisted that.

“Research shows that states with Election Day registration have increased turnout, even after accounting for other factors,” the Pew report card says in its turnout section.

Sometimes, but not always. For example, Idaho allows Election Day registration, and its turnout was 74.3 percent using the standard calculation, or 60.9 percent on the Pew report card. North Dakota, which tops the Pew rankings (as it did in 2010 and 2008) doesn’t even require registration. You just show up, show your ID and get a ballot.

So North Dakota’s turnout was, like, high 90s, right? Wrong. It was 61 percent under the Pew formula — four points lower than Washington and about the same as Idaho.

Pew also has some qualms about voting by mail, which is the way everyone votes in Washington. “Unlike in-person voters, who may have an opportunity to correct errors, mail voters have no recourse if a mistake is made,” it says in its report.

That isn’t really true. A mail-in ballot comes with instructions on how to correct a mistake — or change your mind on an issue or a candidate — and it’s possible to get a replacement from the elections office or a voter service center on Election Day.

This is all pretty academic. But if I were Washington, I’d go to the teacher and argue for a better class ranking.