Elections as swift as the mail
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
This morning I checked in at the state’s elections website, a favorite of late. It is a very nifty and rapid means of transmitting large amounts of information. You can see tabulated results from every race, from every county. There are maps, and if your cursor hovers over a county it will pop open and tell you how many people voted for what. They even have an election results iPhone app.
Sadly, you cannot digitize what is not yet known. You cannot record votes uncounted. We feed these fanciful 21st century clouds of data with a communications system developed in the 18th century — an envelope containing a hand-written message, collected and carried from point to point and hand delivered to the addressee. Our election tabulations are only as swift as the U.S. Postal Service. And as a result, with all our technological prowess and abilities to analyze and move indescribably large amounts of data in milliseconds, we count votes more slowly than the ancient age when election board ladies with rubber thumb caps and ledgers did their tabulations in school gyms and church basements, their results collected by telephone and transmitted by teletype operators and newspaper wire services to the world awaiting the news before retiring on election night.
A check at vote.wa.gov shows that as of the last update at 7:24 p.m. on 11/8 there are still 237,163 votes to be counted statewide, a full week after Election Day. These are the ballots that have arrived by mail and not yet been processed. More may arrive and be counted if they were postmarked on Nov. 2. This number of ballots is not huge relative to the 2.3 million already counted, but it is enough that we do not know who will serve on the state Supreme Court, and we only learned today who will represent the state’s 2nd District in Congress.
This plodding is in large part the result of a deliberate choice, to switch to the trendy and leisurely system of voting by mail. Oregon did it and Washington followed and now only a few thousand people in Pierce County actually go to what they quaintly refer to as polling places. This is supposed to expand the franchise, which is debatable, and encourage participation among those once too lazy to go to a poll. It is cheaper and easier to manage for county auditors who do the counting. It is also supremely frustrating if you want to know who won the election. And it makes us look bad. Columnist Michael Barone, recently commented that California, which is shifting to vote by mail, will take five weeks to count votes from the Nov. 2 election. Brazil, which just had national elections, counted its votes in five hours. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, in his post-election analysis, said this: “My colleague Gail Collins once said that Washington must ‘age its votes in oak casks’ before counting them. Close, and this is a big wine-making state. But it’s also a mail-in ballot state, which means those sent at the last second have to be sorted and counted. It’s a laughable system, at least on the counting end.”
What to do to make the system not so laughable? A return to polls and voting booths and 90-percent election night counts would be wonderful from my point of view, but very unlikely now that we have swallowed this vote-by-mail pill. Many, including Secretary of State Sam Reed, want to shift to an Oregon-like system and require that ballots be received at counting places, not just postmarked by Election Day. This would speed things up somewhat, and perhaps more than half the votes would be counted the night of the election. It would not eliminate the tedious and sometimes contentious process of sorting and opening millions of envelopes and confirming millions of kitchen-table signatures.
Those are the signatures once made before witnesses at official polls, before the signer secretly filled in a ballot that only minutes later might be tabulated and recorded. They were primitive and inconvenient, but those were the days.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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