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Originally published November 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 2, 2008 at 1:46 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Washington's pokey election system

Washington's absurd, outdated law allows ballots to be mailed by Election Day and that keeps us in the dark for weeks. We are a high-tech state with a horse-and-buggy election system.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Election Day is almost here. Imagine. After many months of a barrage of scary TV ads, the media assault will stop. We will have results. We will know something.

Not so fast.

This is still Washington, which Gail Collins of The New York Times described years ago as a state that "appears to bring the ballots in by Pony Express and then let them age in oak casks for a month or two before they're ready to be sampled."

You envision an election where the results are neat and tidy — wrapped up by bedtime Election Night. I fear a close governor's contest or 8th District congressional race in which they count ballots for weeks and proclaim a winner just as the Christmas ships begin to glide across Lake Washington in early December.

This is not misplaced election terror. Washington's absurd, outdated law allows ballots to be mailed by Election Day and that keeps us in the dark for weeks. We are a high-tech state with a horse-and-buggy election system.

In 2000, the very close Senate race between Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and Democrat Maria Cantwell kept the whole country wondering about control of the Senate for almost a month. As officials slowly counted ballots and conducted a recount, the national mocking reached its peak — deservedly so.

Here in Washington we cannot count ballots we have not received, especially those arriving by steamer from Katmandu.

I am all for mail balloting. but state lawmakers leave us in the lurch by refusing to change the nutty law about when ballots must arrive. Current law says the postmark must be by Election Day, meaning any time mail is picked up and postmarked that day.

The secretary of state's office has tried for many years to persuade the Legislature to change the rules only to be told by numerous lawmakers and county auditors that they are disenfranchising voters.

Disenfranchising is an overwrought term, says Paul Gronke, professor of political science at Reed College in Oregon. He ought to know. Oregon requires ballots to be received by Election Day and provides many options for Election Day drop-off at libraries, stores — even McDonald's.

Washington, Oregon and California wrote their laws to achieve maximum voter participation, but the postmark rule goes further than most, if not, all, other states.

"Requiring ballots to arrive by Election Day is not an undue or significant burden on the voter, " Gronke said.

Oregon has been all vote-by-mail for years. Voters there are no smarter than our voters and they manage to follow the rules.

This becomes more about habit — a bad one. Our voters really could get it together to have their ballots received by Election Day. State Elections Director Nick Handy says the secretary of state's office believes nearly 50 percent of the projected vote was in by last Friday. Those voters don't feel disenfranchised.

But don't expect too many of those ballots to be counted swiftly. Another silly law prevents tallying ballots before 8 p.m. Election Night.

"State law doesn't let you count them; state law only allows you to process them earlier, " says Dave Ammons, spokesman for the secretary of state's office. "You can open them up, make sure there are valid signature, run them through the machine but you cannot press the counting button until 8 p.m. "

How ridiculous and old-fashioned.

In 37 of 39 counties, the election this year will be conducted entirely by mail. The largest counties, King and Pierce, are the exception, but many voters there also cast ballots by mail.

The slowest ballot counting is expected in King County, where about one-third of the state's voters live. The county is anticipating another ballot-counting slowapalooza.

King County will count only a third of all ballots by Election Day, and then dribble out another 90,000 a day over the next week or so. The county's antiquated machines were to be replaced by more-modern ones but those have not yet received federal certification.

So here we are. The considerable hope is that none of our contests will be particularly close. If a race is almost a tie, we will spend the next several weeks watching the ballot tallies — drip, drip, drip. The rest of the country will move on with their lives. We will be left wishing we had put some giddyup in our pokey election system.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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