The state Senate has passed a measure to move the state's primary election to the first Tuesday in August. The move also will ease the flow of ballots from overseas and military voters.
The lopsided vote – 47-1 – bodes well for the state House of Representatives, which should ratify Senate Bill 5171 and send it to Gov. Chris Gregoire for her signature. Moving the date of the “top two” primary election two weeks earlier in August is a step in the right direction.
Truth be told, the federal government has given Washington state very little wiggle room. A federal law requires military and overseas ballots be mailed 45 days before the general election. That involves about 60,000 Washington ballots – no small number.
The existing primary date in mid-August puts the 45-day rule at risk.
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In a normal year, county election officials can tabulate the primary ballots, certify the election results and get general election ballots mailed out anywhere from 52 to 60 days before the November election.
“If things go perfectly in every election, we don’t have a problem,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s chief elections officer. “That means no lawsuits. No recounts. No printing problems. If there are problems, then we risk not getting them out in 45 days.”
Last year, Washington state received a waiver from the 45-day rule from the Department of Defense and Department of Justice. But the feds warned Reed and other state officials that Washington state should not count on future waivers.
Federal officials expect the state to move the date of the primary to ensure Washington can meet the 45-day mandate for military and overseas ballots to go in the mail.
In the 2008 presidential election, this state had a 73 percent return of military and overseas voter ballots. And more than 99 percent of the ballots arrived in the proper office in time to be counted.
But to ensure compliance with the federal law, legislators must move the primary forward two weeks, with a three week advancement of the time set aside for candidates to declare for public office. If the Senate bill passes the House, this year’s primary election will move from Aug. 16 to Aug. 2.
That’s not a substantive change to fend off lawsuits from the federal government. That’s why lawmakers should approve Reed’s legislation.
Also key to the legislation is the provision that allows military and overseas voters to cast their ballots via e-mail to ensure they are returned to the county auditor in time to be counted. Some Peace Corps workers and service members are in very remote areas of the world, and it’s essential that their votes be counted.
Reed rightfully lauded passage of the bill in the Senate. He said, “We are delighted with the strong bipartisan vote in the Senate on this most important piece of legislation to help ensure that our military service members’ voice is heard in our elections. We have such great admiration for our military personnel and have long sought to provide special assistance and high priority to handling their ballots, registration services and voter information.
“This legislation allows these voters to receive their ballots electronically or by regular surface mail, and to return a voted ballot by e-mail to their home county,” Reed noted. “Auditors will compare the voters’ signature with the one on file for them, and will be able to tally the vote without waiting for the actual paper ballot to arrive by surface mail, as currently required.
“Our goal is for all properly voted ballots to arrive at the county elections offices in time to be counted. We can do no less for our service members and the overseas voters who are temporarily living abroad as relief workers, missionaries, business people, Peace Corps volunteers and so forth.”
The House should give speedy consideration to SB 5171 in order to keep Washington in compliance with federal voting regulations.