Legislators work to build confidence in elections

The 2004 gubernatorial election seriously undermined voter confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the vote counting system in Washington state.

The final tally — after the initial count of ballots, a machine recount, manual count and court intervention — gave Gov. Chris Gregoire the victory over Dino Rossi by a mere 133 votes. It was the closest gubernatorial election in state history.

The vote tabulation was mired in a cesspool of allegations about illegal registrations, felons voting in conflict with state law, election fraud, and mishandled and missing ballots.

There still are people in this state who refuse to accept that Gregoire won the race.

It was a horrible time for auditors, the chief election officer in each county. Statewide election officials also drew their share of criticism. They, more than anyone else, understand that when the credibility of the electoral system is eroded, the cornerstone of democracy also has been undermined.

If there is one positive outcome from those horrible days when the outcome of the election was in doubt for weeks, it’s that voters are much more in tune with the election system and how it should operate. Because of voter sensitivity, lawmakers are especially alert when passing bills that affect the voting system.

Even five years after the awfulness of that gubernatorial election, state legislators tread lightly and delve deeply when considering election- related legislation.

State legislators have passed election bills in every year since the disputed 2004 gubernatorial election. 2009 was no exception.

“We had some significant wins, some painful losses and, like all other agencies of state government, we’ll be taking some pretty substantial budget hits, starting immediately and lasting through the next two years,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed.

The election bills include:

 • Voter registration: Today voter registrations are cut off 30 days before every primary, general and special election. There is an exception, however. People can go to their county auditor’s office and register in person up until 15 days before the election. Lawmakers passed a bill in the 105-day session that was proposed by Reed and county auditors to move in-person registration deadlines to within eight days of Election Day and to move other new or updated registrations to as close as 29 days before an election. Reed said, “This will give prospective voters more time to sign up, while still allowing counties sufficient time to assure integrity of the system.”

n Inactive voters: This is one of those common sense proposals. Under this bill auditors will no longer be forced to send ballots to inactive voters. “This important change will save considerable tax money and eliminate a temptation for voter fraud,” Reed said.

 •  Felon voting: We’ve opinioned on this issue previously. The new law allows felons who have served their time in custody and community supervision to have their voting rights restored. They still must make good faith efforts to pay their fines, restitution and court costs, but failure to pay will not keep them from voting.

n Spring elections: Lawmakers reduced the number of special elections from four to two — one in February and another in April. For the next two years only, elections also can be held in May. The measure was billed as a cost savings move.

 • Presidential elections: The Legislature approved a bill to require that the state’s electoral votes be awarded to the national popular vote winner. The vote takes effect only after enough other states join a compact to total 270 electoral votes collectively, the minimum needed to win the White House. A referendum has been filed challenging the new legislation so it may go to a vote this fall.

Reed’s effort to have all ballots returned by Election Day was torpedoed by the Legislature as was his misguided effort to reduce the amount of information available to voters.

This year’s changes to election law could be classified as refinements, not election reform. But each bill is an attempt by lawmakers to restore public confidence in the electoral system in this state. It’s going to take time and a series of error-free elections to get to that point.