Election ballot counting: Why the prolonged wait?

With a number of Tuesday’s election races still too close to call, including the governor’s contest, many are wondering why it takes so long to count ballots. Why can’t we know the clear results on Election Night?

One reason a lot people cite is the fact that Washington ballots can be postmarked by Election Day and don't have to be turned in by Election Day.

In fact, outgoing Secretary of State Sam Reed has fought to get that change through the Legislature for several years now, but hasn’t succeeded. But for those who think this will dramatically change things, think again.

“It is not going to make elections results faster,” said Julie Anderson, the Pierce County auditor. “We get our biggest dump on Tuesday, and our pipes are only so wide. We’re only going to be able to do that pre-processing at the same speed.”

Having even more ballots on Election Day won’t prevent things from dragging out, she predicts.

Another change that is talked about is to automate the signature-verification process. Right now, it’s a person who checks that the signature on the ballot matches the signature on file. There is a picture of a voter’s file signature on a computer screen that is compared to the signature on the ballot envelope, but it’s a person who makes the call.

How about a computer to speed up that process?

“It’s never that easy,” said Anderson. “Is it going to be less expensive for me to add more people who are trained, or less expensive for me to find quality software that would speed the process up?”

Even though it may not feel like it, ballot processing and counting is getting faster since the state moved to a mail-in system a few years ago.

“We definitely are processing more ballots and getting them counted now in 2012 than we were, for example, in previous years,” said Katie Blinn, co-director of elections for Washington state. Whereas before the state would process about 50% of ballots in the first count, “we’re now in the 60-65% range on getting more ballots counted on Election Night and also getting more ballots counted on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday right after Election Day.”

Blinn says one way to guarantee more definitive results is for voters to change their behavior.

“The more voters who vote early and get their ballots back to us in those first two weeks, the more ballots we have ready to go and that are included in those Election Night results.”