Washington Chaos May Yield Reform

Posted December 3, 2004 at 6:18pm

More than a month after Election Day, it is still not clear who will be the next governor of Washington — a situation that has some political leaders in the Evergreen State saying it is time to reform the electoral system.

This is the second time in four years that an election for a major statewide office has remained unresolved into December in Washington.

This time, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) leads Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) by 42 votes out of 2.8 million cast, with a statewide hand recount and a lawsuit imminent in the closest election in state history.

In 2000, challenger Maria Cantwell (D) was not declared the winner over then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R) until Dec. 1 after a recount showed her ahead by 2,229 votes out of 2.4 million cast.

Washington allows anyone to vote absentee and the ballots need only be postmarked by Election Day, meaning tens of thousands of ballots roll in days after voting has ended.

While the secretary of state has not officially said what percentage of votes were absentee this time, some have put the number as high as 70 percent.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has already called upon the state Legislature to require absentee ballots to be received by Election Day.

Oregon, where the entire election is conducted by mail, has such a provision.

Reed’s recommendation is likely to get serious attention from Washington policymakers — including Rossi, if he winds up as governor.

“I think by the time we are done, the public will be demanding it,” said Rossi political consultant Jim Keough. “There are so many problems that are inherent in our election system that we are going to need reform.”

Both Rossi and Gregoire have acknowledged the process could use some tweaking.

Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance, who has been at the forefront of the recount battle, said legislators cannot ignore the obvious need for reform.

“I think this fiasco is going to prompt a lot of attention in the Legislature in the next year,” he said. “The length of time this has taken is what has made this so obvious. In Florida in 2000, they had counted all ballots by late on Election Night. For us, it took 10 days to count all the ballots the first time.”

One simple solution to that problem would be allowing election officials to begin counting absentee ballots as they are received, instead of barring them from counting ballots before Election Day as the current law requires, several political observers suggested.

Vance said this year’s gubernatorial race has revealed “holes in the system that have been exposed by the closeness of this election.”

For example, Democrats successfully sued to gain access to a list of voters whose provisional ballots were invalidated because election officials could not match the signatures. Party workers were allowed to track them down and have them sign affidavits swearing their identity, thereby allowing their votes to count.

Vance said that set a terrible precedent.

“It would clear up uncertainty if we just required people to show identification if they are voting provisional,” Vance said. “The charges that it is discriminatory in any way is pure poppycock. If we just did that, we wouldn’t have had the brouhaha we had in this state three weeks ago.”

Christian Sinderman, a Seattle-based Democratic consultant who was involved in both Cantwell and Gregoire’s campaigns, cautioned against making radical changes to the current system.

“Clearly there will be discussions but any reform needs to err on the side of voter participation and integrity,” he said.

A spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) echoed a similar sentiment.

“Waiting a little bit later for an outcome is a small price to pay to ensure a fair and full counting of the vote,” said Murray spokesman Mike Spahn.

He said the unresolved governor’s race and Cantwell’s 2000 election are not the result of a broken system but rather the product of high voter turnout in a very competitive state with voter-friendly rules.

“I haven’t heard a lot of chatter of people saying, ‘Oh God, we have to reform elections,’” Spahn said.

University of Washington political scientist David Olson agreed that regular voters are not jumping on the reform bandwagon.

“It’s an issue among the talking heads, at the mass level, people are very patient … they would rather get it right,” he said. “It’s the price you pay for competitive elections.”

Nonetheless, he predicts there will be some simple reforms, including moving the state’s primary from September to perhaps June.

Washington has one of the latest primaries in the country; it was Sept. 14 this year. Several politicos have noted that a primary as close as how the gubernatorial general election turned out to be would be extremely problematic.

For instance, general election absentee ballots could not be printed in time if officials did not know who the candidate for a particular office was just a few weeks after the primary.

At least one primary was not settled right away this year. Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair was not named the Republican nominee against Rep. Rick Larsen (D) until Sept. 23, and those results were not certified by the secretary of state until Oct. 6.