If there was any doubt, Election 2012 has confirmed it: Washington is the slowest vote-counting state in the country.
As of Thursday night, 30 states and the District of Columbia had counted virtually 100 percent of their ballots, 12 states had tabulated 99 percent and everybody else — including Washington’s vote-by-mail sibling, Oregon — were hovering around 95 percent or higher.
Washington state had tallied 76 percent, with at least three major contests still hanging in the balance: the governor’s matchup, the race for secretary of state and a ballot measure on whether to allow charter schools.
As in the past, King County — the state’s largest — led from behind, with just more than 70 percent of its expected 1 million ballots counted. It counted about 100,000 ballots Thursday, most received Tuesday, and it still had roughly 275,000 more to count.
Elections officials blamed voters who waited until the last minute to cast their ballots and laws allowing them to do so. In this state, voters need only to postmark their ballots by Election Day, meaning that ballots often trickle in long afterward. On Thursday, King County reported receiving some 5,000 new ballots.
From receipt to tabulation, bundles of ballots take about a day and a half to process, mostly because of security requirements such as manually checking signatures against voter files, officials said. If a ballot has a problem — a missing signature or the wrong ink color — it takes longer.
Counting faster would be costly, said Katie Blinn, the state’s co-election director.
In Oregon, which had counted 95 percent of its expected votes by Thursday, ballots must be received by county election offices by Election Day. The state, which has a smaller population than Washington and has been doing all-mail voting since 2000, uses electronic signature verification and asks election workers to work late into the night, said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a state spokeswoman.
In King County, workers go home at 8:30 p.m. or earlier.
News reporters are the only people who complain about the vote-counting delay, said Blinn, adding that Washington’s system is relatively inexpensive, accurate and encourages turnout.
Switching to Oregon’s system could lead to more ballots being disqualified, she said.
But Washington state’s system has its drawbacks as well. Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center said that the longer a ballot count drags on, the more likely residents are to distrust the results.
“There is a cynicism that builds in the public if they see their candidate ahead one night and down the next,” Mercier said.
The system is also hard on candidates, said Dino Rossi, who has endured close races for governor and senator.
“You just gave a year of your life to something you care about and then it drags on and on,” he wrote in an email. “I think everyone would rather have the election finished on Election Day.”