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Unlike 2000, Oregon, Washington May Not Delay Vote Count

While the eyes of the nation were on Florida during the 36-day recount four years ago, the Sunshine State wasn’t the only place where the final tallies were slow in rolling in.

The two West Coast states of Oregon and Washington have led the nation in their embrace of mail-in and absentee balloting, sometimes leaving voters and politicos in the dark long after the sun goes down on Election Day.

In Oregon, where all voting has been by mail since voters approved the change in 1998, it took nine days in 2000 before the state definitively shifted to the blue column, awarding its 7 electoral votes to Democrat Al Gore.

Meanwhile, Washington state allows voters to register as permanent absentee voters and postmark their ballots up through Election Day. In 2000, about 54 percent of the vote was cast by absentee ballot, and a tight Senate election between Maria Cantwell (D) and incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton (R) meant that control of the incoming Senate remained in question for roughly three weeks.

Could this track record dash hopes for a quick resolution to Election 2004? Officials in both states say it won’t.

Despite higher projected turnout this year — officials in both states believe about 85 percent of registered voters will cast ballots — few observers in either state foresee a repeat of the drawn-out 2000 vote counting.

The reason has more to do with political factors than with technical ones. While both states have sometimes appeared on “battleground state” rosters, current polling suggests that they are now poised to give comfortable margins to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. And in Washington’s Senate contest, two-term Sen. Patty Murray (D) is projected to top her Republican challenger, Rep. George Nethercutt, who has faded somewhat after making an initially strong challenge.

“The polls close at 8 p.m. and I think we’ll know who won [the presidential and Senate races] by 8:03” p.m., predicted Washington Democratic Party Communications Director Kirstin Brost.

“If it’s not as close as the last one,” added Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury of the presidential election, “we will know by 8:30 p.m.”

More likely to be affected by delays in vote-counting are a handful of contested House seats, most notably Washington’s 8th district and Oregon’s 1st district. The closeness of both contests, coupled with the high level of absentee balloting, could result in delayed outcomes — although the size of the Republican House majority makes it unlikely that control of the House will hinge on the resolution of these two seats.

Oregon’s disappearing battleground status has much to do with the fact that independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader did not qualify for the ballot this year. In 2000, then-Green Party nominee Nader took 5 percent of the vote — a key reason why the 2000 race ended up 47 percent for Gore and 47 percent for Republican George W. Bush. Gore won by fewer than 7,000 votes.

This year, Kerry holds a lead of 4 points to 6 points in the most recent polls. There is a small chance Bush could still pull out a victory in the Beaver State, said independent Oregon pollster Tim Hibbitts — though he added that all current signs indicate “a clear early call for Kerry.”

Four years ago in Oregon, delays were attributed to misdirected ballots and computer overloads in some parts of the state.

“With such a tight margin, no one was willing to call it ’til every vote was counted,” Bradbury said.

In Washington, the lag in 2000 had to do with the state’s postmark rule, which allows voters to mail in their absentee ballots up through Election Day. Since then, efforts have been made to increase workers and space to expedite the process, especially in counties such as the Seattle-based King County, where local election officials “weren’t set up to handle this many [absentee] ballots,” said Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.

“I think we are going to do it better this year and see more meaningful results earlier,” Reed said. “But because of the 15-day certification period, we are probably going to see all 15 days used.”

Reed acknowledged that there is a recognition in some circles that the return date for absentee ballots needs to be changed to prevent them from trickling in long after Election Day. Legislation that would change the rule so that absentee ballots have to be received by Election Day (as Oregon does with its all-mail-in system) has been introduced but remains stalled in the state Legislature, he said.

“It is a lengthy process to handle these mail-in ballots,” he said. Signatures have to be double-checked against computerized voter-registration signatures before ballots can be counted, for instance.

Echoing a trend toward early voting seen throughout the country, Oregon and Washington state are finding mail-in returns in some counties outpacing their rate in 2000. At least in those two states, that could mean a quicker count.

Nationally, though, the increase in absentee and early voting could mean that “exit polling and the immediacy of returns” may be more difficult this year, said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Although political forecasters and national television networks may be dismayed at the lag time between poll closings and results, voters in Oregon and Washington don’t seem to be bothered by the wait.

“Oregon constituents appear to love the mail-in process,” said Reynolds. She added that the method was particularly attractive to voters in states, like Oregon, that are known for the large number of complicated initiatives and referendums on their ballots.

“We are all conditioned to this,” said Washington State Republican Chairman Chris Vance. “If you get an incredibly close race everyone just has to wait.”

“The lesson is, ‘Cool it — there will eventually be results,’” added David Olson, a University of Washington political science professor. “Only in the last 50 years [have we had] these results the day after. For most of American history, we’ve waited a week, if not longer, and I think we are going back to that.”

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