Here is a trick question: When is the Nov. 2 election over?
It’s a trick question because despite Tuesday’s deadline for turning in ballots, the counting continues for several days or, perhaps, weeks. Final votes are not certified until about three weeks after Election Day.
While it might be counterintuitive, this is a good thing. It’s all part of ensuring that every legitimate vote is counted and tabulated correctly.
That can lead to some drama. After the first count on election night — a tally that included a little more than half the submitted ballots — John Blom led Kim Harless by 449 votes in a race for Position 1 on the Vancouver City Council. By Wednesday, the lead was 350 votes, and the following day it was 41 votes.
If the final count is within 2,000 votes and the candidates are separated by one-half of 1 percent or less, a recount is required under state law. There is even the slim possibility of a tie vote and a coin flip to decide the race.
That happened in 2018 for a Precinct Committee Officer position in Clark County. That PCO race, however, had a total of 98 votes, making a tie more likely than in a city council race that will wind up with more than 30,000 votes being counted.
Meanwhile, the counting goes on, often to the consternation of candidates and political wonks. While the process can be frustrating, it serves as a reminder that democracy can be messy — but we wouldn’t trade it for any other system.
During that process, a manual recount of 600 ballots revealed no discrepancies between the hand count and the machine count. “It was perfect,” Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said. “There were no discrepancies, which continues an unbroken streak of perfect manual audits.”
With all elections in Washington conducted exclusively by mail, that system sometimes is at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service. Ballots may be deposited in official drop boxes, but many are returned by mail and must be postmarked by Election Day. With the Postal Service recently extending its deadline for what constitutes “on-time” delivery, the chances of legal ballots arriving several days after the election has increased.
Some, including The Columbian’s Editorial Board in the past, have argued that Election Day should be the deadline for ballots to arrive — as is the case in Oregon. We have since come to our senses.
Requiring that ballots are delivered to officials by Election Day would increase the chances that legitimate ballots would not be counted.
For the 2015 primary election in Clark County, some 800 ballots turned up three days after the election at the U.S. Postal Service’s Mount Hood Distribution Center in Northeast Portland. Through no fault of voters, their ballots took a detour to another state. If ballots were required to arrive at election headquarters by Election Day, those votes would not have counted.
Imagine if a chunk of ballots were mailed two or four or six days before the election but did not arrive on time. Imagine if some ballots mailed two days before the election arrived on time while others did not. With changes in the Postal Service, that is increasingly likely, and allowing an election to turn on that likelihood would be most undemocratic. Accuracy is more important than expediency.
And so we wait. In a digital age when we have grown accustomed to instant gratification, the wait can be frustrating. But it is a small price to pay for free and fair elections in which every legitimate vote counts.