Don Davis

On A New System (Sort Of), Or, Referendum 71 And Mail-In Voting

Filed By Don Davis | October 27, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: election campaigns, LBGT, New Jersey, R-71, Referendum 71, vote by mail, Washington State

We are now about two weeks away from the November election in Washington State, and one item on the ballot that has national attention is Referendum 71, the so-called "everything but marriage" proposal that would give same-sex couples more rights and protections than they have today.

There has been a lot of conversation about whether it will or won't pass--and a lot of conversation about whether it should pass.

I hope it does, and if you live here I encourage you to vote "yes" November 3rd.

But that said, you may not be aware that Washington has an electoral system in transition, and that as a result of the transition Washington has some idiosyncrasies that will make forecasting the results a bit tougher, and determining the results a bit slower.

We'll talk about that today, and by the time we're done you should have an appreciation of the odd way in which things can work out--and that, absent a landslide, we aren't likely to know the results on Election Day.

These Are Not Normal Times

We have the strangest weather here: it is not quite 50 degrees Fahrenheit as I write this, in midafternoon; but by tonight it's expected to get warmer as the rain moves in.

In normal times, this is the kind of thing experts would be considering as they tried to estimate what turnout might be in the upcoming election--but these are not normal times. After the November '08 election, Washington, following Oregon's lead, became the second "vote-by-mail" state, and now the question has become not whether weather will impact the turnout...but if it will matter at all.

"Democracy is only an experiment in government, and it has the obvious disadvantage of merely counting votes instead of weighing them."

--Dean William Ralph Inge, "Possible Recovery?"

mail delivery.jpgThe first unusual thing about Election Day in Washington is that there no longer is an Election Day. Voting now begins when the ballots begin to arrive in voters' homes (20 days before Election Day), and as of Sunday, October 25th, King County Elections (Washington's largest county; the county that includes Seattle and almost 1/3 of the State's population) reports that 8.59% of the ballots are already in. All ballots with a postmark before November 4th will be counted, which means there will be new ballots arriving for several days after the "polls close".

(As you may have guessed, each county operates their own elections office. All elections in the State are regulated by the Washington Secretary of State, which is also the office that handles paperwork for State-level candidates, initiatives, and referenda.)

This is driving the professional political community nuts, because it means every day there is a smaller pool of voters to influence, even though the cost of advertising time isn't going down. Additionally, it is at the moment unclear exactly who has voted and how; over time, I think we'll begin to see patterns emerge.

For example, in King County in this election cycle, the locations most likely to have already voted are, for the most part, the wealthiest regions of the county. A group of six communities clustered around Bill Gates' house all have "in" rates above 10.5%, including three above 13%. The Town of Beaux Arts Village is at the top of that pack, running almost double the countywide rate at 16.74%.

The other communities most likely to have already voted are among the most rural in the County. Skykomish has 16.31% in, Enumclaw 12%. Unincorporated rural King County, however, is only running 8.49%, suggesting that the trend to vote early among the wealthy is more predictable than that same trend among the rural voters.

Among the many communities with average "in rates", however, are clusters of low- and upper-income housing--and that's where it is impossible to determine precisely who's voted already and who is left to influence. With polling reports on Election Day you can track by precinct (and that type of tracking will be available after November 3rd), but for now an effective method of tracking has not emerged.

We assume that over time we'll see the development of some form of "exit polling" of those who have already voted...but this is the first significant election since all-mail voting began, and prediction tools are as of yet untested.

"Message, We Have A Problem"

All of this is affecting advertising--after all, if you don't know what portion of the electorate has already voted, how do you target your message to the remaining voters? When we get a week out, if we have 20% or more of the ballots in, this question will begin to loom very large as campaigns have to decide whether they have spent enough campaign dollars to buy airtime...or not...and whether the target audience they seek to influence is actually responding to the message...or not.

This all becomes even tougher to figure out because it's a series of state and local races that are being contested in this election; as a result there is no daily tracking poll data available from which we might draw some near real-time conclusions.

Speaking of polling data: here's some. A Survey USA poll conducted October 3rd and released October 6th of 548 likely voters suggests R-71 was winning 45%-42%. Women were both more likely to vote for the measure and more unsure as to how they would vote, relative to men (48% yes, 36% no, 16% unsure for females; 42% yes, 46% no, 12% unsure for males).

Voters 35-49 were simultaneously the least supportive of the measure and the most unsure as to how they'll vote (35% approve, 49% reject, with 20% unsure). Voters over 65, the group most likely to vote, were supporting the measure (44%-40%, 16% unsure) as of October 6th.

The poll has a 4% margin of error, and some of these results are within that range, so as of October 6th this was still a race that's very much up for grabs.

There are no Federal or State offices being contested in this election, and the only other statewide ballot issue, Initiative 1033, seeks to limit the growth of State income. The presence of the two ballot measures is likely to increase voting by 3% to 8%. It is suggested that a lower turnout will help the anti-71 crowd, a higher turnout, the pro-71 crowd.

All of this has had a major impact on "get out the vote" efforts as well--for example, no one volunteers to drive voters to polling places anymore...because there aren't any polling places left. (There are a few exceptions for the disabled.) Instead, the effort here is to make sure those ballots get in mailboxes before Election Day.

It is possible to construct ads that attempt to "close the deal": suggesting, in the last 20 days, that voters vote right now for or against the candidate or issue, but I haven't seen ads of that type yet.

counting the voites.jpgFinally, a few words about the "after Election Day" action. If this election is close, the number of votes that are in the mail in the days following the close of voting (and where they're from) will be critical--and in the '08 cycle 50% of the total votes cast were in that "in the mail" category.

(Washington has been moving to voting by mail for some time, and in the 2008 cycle more than 90% of the votes cast were mail-in ballots. At that time 37 of the State's 39 counties were voting entirely by mail.)

The bad news: it could take anywhere from several days to several weeks before we absolutely know the results. This process may include "reevaluation" of votes after Election Day and efforts by either party to disallow votes based on what they think they can get away with, and the result could be litigation.

The good news: there are no electronic voting machines in this system, and every ballot is a paper ballot. This means we can determine, eventually, exactly how the votes were cast--and if it takes a few recounts before we know the results, well, that's what it will take.

So as of right now, that's where we're at: it's the first major election since mail-in voting was adopted statewide, we are not sure of exactly how the impact of early voting is being felt, even though we know that almost 10% of the votes are in, professionals are still not exactly sure of what's going on, and there should be a higher turnout due to the fact that we have two questions on the ballot for the entire voting public to consider.

Don't expect a final result on Election Night, and if we do have to go to a recount, there won't be any electronic voting machines to screw things up. Instead, every vote will be on a paper ballot. Most importantly of all: this ain't Florida, we've been through recent close elections and recounts before--and we were able to work things out just fine.

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This is FASCINATING! Thank you so much for this insight. I had no idea that this system was in place--and in a way, its a bit scary. I don't know what to make of it. Like you mention, where--for a ballot initiative like this--Get Out The Vote is crucial; there's got to be a lot of difficulty in determining HOW to do that.

Also, as an election day approaches, people tend to solidify on one side or another of an issue, because there is more information. In 2004 my father VOTED AGAINST MY RIGHTS and chose to support Proposition 2 which created a discriminatory ban on Equality in the State of Michigan. At the time, I had been calling him constantly trying to sway him. One day he admitted to me that my most recent arguments had let him to change his mind--but that it was too late because he had sent his ballot in the week before.

I like having until election day to state your case. Having so many people voting before they have fully heard the arguments on all sides... this makes me uncomfortable.

THEN AGAIN, I see a potential for a higher voter turn-out her--especially if the postage is included. I don't know. We shall see.

a few comments: there is data, based on oregon's experience with the system, that suggests that mail-in voting does increase participation--but that said, the increase seems to come from currently active voters voting more often, as opposed to new voters becoming active voters.

this effect may actually work for pro-71 forces, as the newly minted obama voters from '08 will be getting ballots in the mail...and getting that ballot in the ol' mailbox does remind you it's time to vote.

as for timing: it's beginning to look as though "campaign messengers" need to have the message out there by the start of early voting (i'm looking at you, too, florida...), with the early voting period being used to say...

"you know the vote. today."

...or something similar.

I really wish we had vote by mail. This year the only thing on the ballot is whether or not to allow a hospital to expand. All those people to pay, ballots to print, training to do, staffing and supporting the polling places from ungodly hours to mid-afternoon - and all of it for a handful of people to vote. Some polling places won't have a single person vote, I'm guessing.

surprisingly, it's not as cheap as it seems.

first, there's opening the envelopes. ballots come in two envelopes: the first is signed by the voter, and that signature is compared (by a person) to the signature "on file" from the original voter registration form.

if the signatures don't match, the voter is contacted by king county elections and given a chance to come down and show id and update their registration. that vote is held until that occurs, and that process requires more people.

the second envelope (with the ballot inside) is combined, unopened, with all the other votes, to be then opened and counted by the optical scanning system.

any votes rejected by the optical scanning system are hand-examined ("canvassed") in an effort to determine the "voter's intent". if intent is unclear, it's bounced up and could eventually end up being examined by the county canvassing board (which is a three-member board consisting of the director of elections, chair of the county council, and the county prosecutor).

it's not yet clear if we'll see cost savings over the long term, but my suspicion is that we'll see savings of 10% or less.

Early voting is awesome. I remember that's what I did when I was in Walla Walla for a few years. I could look up the candidates and find out more about the ballot initiatives.

Then I voted in person in Indiana, and the most I had to go by was party affiliation. It's something, since "Republican" means "insane" right now.

i'm a big fan, that's for sure, but as i mentioned above, the way messaging in campaigns is timed needs to be addressed--and also the question of "can you sustain a campaign in night before election day intensity for three weeks?" (think about running a big phone bank for a month instead of for that last week, for example.)

the other big issue: campaigns need to be thinking about the "after party", meaning that the close of voting, more and more often, is just the middle of a process that involves ballot examinations and the efforts of one side or the other to disqualify voters. managers need to be prepared to go on, potentially for months, after the actual voting ends.

i just saw last night's colbert, by the way, and i had no idea we had made the show, but i could not have enjoyed it more.