Politics blog

Report: Washington ranks No. 12 among states for running good elections

OlympianApril 8, 2014 

Elections worker Carol Gruen moves a box of incoming ballot for inspection on Election Day last Nov. 13 at the Thurston County elections shop in Mottman Industrial Park.

THE OLYMPIAN / FILE PHOTO

This post has been updated to correct Washington's past ranking.

Washington continues to run its elections better than in most other states, but others are catching up to the Evergreen State’s innovations, according to a new report by Pew Charitable Trusts that examined all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The first-ever report, called the Elections Performance Index, shows Washington falling from No. 8 to No. 12 in the country for well-administered elections since 2008 – even while the state’s performance improved overall.

The Evergreen State is one of seven states that ranked in the top 25 percent in 2008 and again for 2010 elections, according to the report, which was scheduled for release Tuesday. New data for the 2012 election cycle is expected to be released by Pew this year.

More details are available at Pew's interactive sites here or here.

“Washington is one of 40 states and that District of Columbia that actually improved from 2008 to 2012, and Washington remains in the top 25 percent of states,’’ Zachary Markovits, manager of Pew’s election initiatives, said in an interview Monday. 

Other states doing well both election cycles were Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Those performing the worst were Alabama, California, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia.

The report looked at 17 factors – everything from turnout to voter waiting lines, ease of voter registration and the rate of rejected ballots. Washington is one of two states along with Oregon that run strictly vote-by-mail elections and this helped the state’s score in some respects by eliminating waiting lines, but hurt it in others.  

The Olympian and News Tribune were given a sneak peek at the embargoed report on Monday.

Highest marks were given to Washington for the completeness of collected elections data, for relatively few voting problems related to people with disabilities or illness, low rates of rejection of ballots from military or overseas voters, low rates of rejected provisional ballots, low rates of rejected voter registrations, and relatively higher voter turnout. Washington also does post-election audits of equipment to ensure accuracy, which the report authors favor.

On the other hand, the state lost points for having what study authors saw as a high rate of nonvoting due to problems with voter registration or absentee ballots. The rate of non-returned ballots in Washington is inflated compared to other states because it mails ballots to everyone registered.

“In 2012, Washington saw significant decreases in the number of provisional ballots issued, driven by King and Pierce counties becoming all vote-by-mail, as well as a change in the process for dealing with people who needed replacement ballots for their mail ballots,” the report’s commentary on Washington says.

A key element to good elections is having a good voter database, which Washington moved ahead to create in 2006, using federal Help America Vote Act money that Congress appropriated after the 2000 presidential election controversy over Florida's sloppy election work. That database helped Washington weed out many felon and deceased voters from the rolls.

Overall, Washington earned a 73 percent rating and ranked No. 12 overall in the study. That represents an increase in the state’s score from 71 percent, but a drop in rankings as other states caught up with the Evergreen State. 

“Our first look at that raw number was one of disappointment,” spokesman David Ammons of the Washington Office of the Secretary of State said. “We have always had the sense of exceptionalism for Washington and thinking (that) in many regards we’ve led the nation – with vote by mail, with Top Two (primary runoffs), with online registration. So much of what we have done is outstanding. … Others are catching up – is the message here. We’re still a high performer state and other states are making rapid improvements. Essentially all boats are rising unless you live in Georgia.”

But Ammons, who had only seen a high-level preview of Pew's national findings, said Secretary of State Kim Wyman and elections staff were waiting to see the full report’s details. 

“We’re still looking for some measures that tell us what we can do better,’’ Ammons said. “I don’t think this particular set of measures fully reflects the great things going on in the state of Washington.’’

Among innovations, Washington went to online voter registration ahead of most states and was one of only two such states in 2008. By 2012, 13 states had online voter registration, and today 18 states have active systems to allow that and similar proposals are working through statehouses in other states, Markovits said.

It appears that Washington could improve its score in some areas by making it easier for residents to get registered to vote. For instance, some top-performing states allow Election Day registration.

The state Legislature considered House Bill 1267  this year, which would have moved the in-person and online registration deadlines from 29 days before an election to 11 days. But the measure, which passed the House with six Republicans joining majority Democrats, died in the Senate which is controlled by a Republican-dominated coalition. 

Elections officials had resisted the change as well as proposals to allow Election Day registration. But Ammons said the resistance is out of a concern for having limited resources to handle ballots flooding into elections offices through the vote-by-mail system. 

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