Sunday, December 26, 2004

Washingtion Election Highlights Need for Election Reform

As voters hit the polls for the do-over on the election in the Ukraine today, voters (well, the political wonks, at least) in Washington State are still dazed and confused from their 2004 gubernatorial race. Final, for now, result: Democrat Christine Gregoire by 130, with a “microscopic margin of 0.0047 percent.”

Though the law only allows for this third and final recount, the Republicans are expected to now continue the fight in the courts, unless they decide to take the high road and to concede, giving Republican Dino Rossi the pole position for a run against Maria Cantwell for the 2006 Senate race or for another face off with Gregoire in the 2008 race for the governor’s mansion.

From the AP:

The only sure winner so far is election reform. Proposals for reforming Washington's election system are going to be as common as umbrellas at the state Capitol this winter.

Secretary of State Sam Reed has suggested a package of changes, though he has said he believes the election went well, all things considered.

"We don't expect it to be perfect," Reed said. "But we do have a system set up to correct those imperfections when they surface, and we have done that."

Wise. Beyond a single state, though, we need national election reform.

As The Seattle Times points out:

The counting of nearly 3 million votes three times uncovered a series of mistakes, by both voters and ballot counters.

The final hand recount showed that 4,018 votes of validly registered state residents had been missed in the original tally from the Nov. 2 election.

A handful of ballots were found left in machines, hundreds more were discovered in misplaced trays, and many more didn't get counted for a variety of reasons. For example, an optical-scanning machine might have failed to read votes that weren't marked properly. Additional ballots were found in nearly all of the 39 counties during the final recount.

As for the candidates in this race, the AP goes on to say:

The two candidates predictably split over whether this election was free and fair.

"Like many people across Washington, I'm very concerned about the integrity of this election process, and I'm also very concerned that not all votes are being treated equally," Rossi said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. He said Washington has neither a clean election nor a legitimate governor.

Gregoire, on the other hand, brimmed with confidence in the Washington electoral system after the results were announced Thursday night.

"I think we have been a model to the rest of the nation and to the world at large," she said. "This is the biggest display of democracy I have ever seen, and I am proud of it."

The Seattle Times article from today has a question and answer section that covers the idea of setting aside the November 2 results and holding a new vote on this race.

Q: Haven't some people called for a new election?

A: Yes. Some Republican supporters of Rossi, notably former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, have called for a new election because the current results are so muddled. They worry that voters won't have confidence that a true winner was selected.

Q: Is a new election possible?

A: Republicans would have to go to court to contest the election. State law says a judge has the right to "set aside" an election because of "error, wrongful act, or neglect" in the conduct of the election.

Q: How would that be proven?

A: Essentially, a judge would put the election on trial. Republicans could present evidence and witnesses to make their case that the election was flawed.

The judge could confirm the election, make Rossi the winner instead, or annul the election.

Q: What happens if the election is nullified?

A: No one seems to know for sure. The law does not specifically say the judge can call for a new election, just that he or she could set aside the current one.

State Elections Director Nick Handy said his reading of the law is that a judge's action to set aside the Rossi-Gregoire election would create a vacancy in the governor's office. That would call for a special election, which would be open to any valid candidates, not necessarily just Rossi and Gregoire.

The state Supreme Court, which is likely to eventually rule on any contested-election case, could set a runoff election between Gregoire and Rossi.

The Seattle Times also points out that there is a precedent in Washington State for nullifying the November election:

Q: Has there ever been an election set aside under the contested-election law?

A: Yes, though not in a statewide race. In 1974 there was an Adams County Commission election nullified by a Superior Court judge, a decision later upheld by the state Supreme Court, over concerns about ballot security. The loser in the race argued that security was lax and presented evidence that ballots had been tampered with.

The Supreme Court ruled "that the irregularity was such that the actual result of the voting could not be ascertained and a new election should be held."

There is no mention of what happened after the results were set aside.

I don’t know if they need to re-do the whole election up there or not, but they definitely need to look at reform. The whole country needs to look at reform. Some would probably argue that the tight margin in races across the country reflects our current political climate, and that once that shifts, these problems will just go away on their own. To some extent, I believe that is why the reforms after the 2000 election were so lightweight.

Even if it is 50 years before the lines are drawn so tightly again, these are the times when the system needs to be at its best. To make it worse, it is hard to “steal” an election when one candidate has a 10% margin of victory and a clear majority. However, this year has shown that it is possible to steal an election when the race is as close as some we have seen this year. If an election is stolen when passions and politics are this heated, real, lasting damage can be done to the system. I am not saying that this actually has happened anywhere this year, but we need to be sure that it did not happen.

Looking to the future, we need to fix the system, regardless of how long it is before those changes prove their worth.

Votes tallied for governor, but what's next is unclear

Washington Governor's Race May Not Be Over

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