Elections chief makes wise moves to improve voting

But Secretary of State Sam Reed's work is not done. He still needs to convince lawmakers to mandate an Election Day deadline for ballots.

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Secretary of State Sam Reed, to his credit, is on an ongoing quest to make the state's elections better.

Year after year Reed, a Republican, goes to lawmakers asking to them to tweak election laws to improve voter turnout and make elections more secure. The recently completed legislative session was no different.

Reed, who was in Walla Walla last week on a swing through Southeastern Washington, successfully lobbied lawmakers to make several tweaks.

He was able to convince the Legislature to move up the primary date in 2012 so the state would be in compliance with a new federal law requiring military ballots to be mailed 45 days before Election Day. In addition, the law was changed to allow military and overseas ballots to be counted that are returned by email or fax (if, of course, all the proper security precautions are taken).

Reed also convinced legislators to make vote-by-mail mandatory statewide. Only one county -- Pierce -- didn't hold vote-by-mail elections.

And, finally, Reed sought approval from lawmakers to cancel the 2012 presidential primary. This will save $10 million for an election that wouldn't have been used extensively by either major political party to pick their nominee for president. It was a prudent decision in light of the state's current financial turmoil.

But, unfortunately, Reed wasn't able to convince lawmakers to require absentee and mail ballots to be received no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day.

This change would allow elections to be wrapped up much faster. It's not fair to the candidates -- or the public -- to drag on elections for weeks. It is estimated that only about half of the vote statewide had been counted by the end of election night. The problem is that Washington law allows all votes postmarked on Election Day to be counted and they trickle in for weeks after that.

But in Oregon, a state that went vote-by-mail before Washington, the ballots have to be received by Election Day. Voters either have to mail their ballots several days before Election Day or drop them in drop boxes throughout communities.

During the presidential election of 2008 the voter turnout rate in Washington state was 84.6 percent. Oregon's voter turnout that year was 85.7 percent.

Why is Washington's lower?

After looking into the matter, Reed and others have concluded that some Washington ballots are not counted even though they are put in the mail on election day. The problem is some U.S. Postal Service offices -- particularly those in small towns or rural areas -- are not staffed in the evening or late at night. As a result, Reed said, the ballots are not counted even though voters put it in the mail before the deadline.

This is wrong and skews, albeit only slightly, elections in favor of big-city voters.

Lawmakers can fix this problem by enacting a statewide deadline for ballots that can be easily and equitably monitored.

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