Reed urges fresh election reforms

News Release
Issued: January 09, 2009

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed is requesting legislation to authorize online voting for military and overseas voters, and to require all mail-in ballots to be returned by election day, rather than merely postmarked by that date.

Reed, the state’s chief elections officer, also proposes a measure updating the state’s popular new voter-approved Top 2 Primary, including fresh language defining political parties. Reed also recommends moving the voter registration deadlines closer to Election Day.
The elections bills are among a package of executive request measures Republican Reed has forwarded to the 2009 Legislature, all with bipartisan co-sponsors. Other measures deal with the Washington State Heritage Center and the Corporations Division, both programs within the Office of Secretary of State.

“Our election laws in Washington are always a work in progress as we try our very best to assure fair, accurate, accessible and secure elections and ever-expanding opportunities and education for our voters,” Reed said. “Working in partnership with the County Auditors, we have made huge strides and voter confidence has been restored.  That said, we never stop trying to improve.”

In that spirit, Reed on Friday urged lawmakers to approve a variety of improvements:

Ballot Deadlines:
The Secretary’s plan is for mail-in ballots to be due back at the local election departments on Election Day, not merely postmarked that day. Military and overseas voters still could use the postmark deadline. The measure also would allow processing of ballots to begin the day before the election, rather than waiting until Election Day, although actual results would not be tabulated and released until after 8 p.m.

“We constantly hear complaints from voters, campaigns, the parties and the media about how long it takes to process the votes,” Reed said. “In this day of instant-everything, people want to know on Election Night who won. That clearly is impossible in many cases, because half of the ballots are still in the mail or have not been tabulated by Election Night. That is due to the law that requires only a postmark – from anywhere in the world.
“It makes sense to change the requirement so that ballots are returned by mail or in person by Election Day. This won’t solve the problem of long counts entirely, certainly, but it will help greatly.  It’s true that we will have to do a lot of voter education to remind voters to return their ballots in time to be counted, but other states, including neighboring Oregon don’t seem to have a problem with this. People will learn to mark their ballots and send them back with plenty of time to spare.”

In Washington, 9 out of 10 people already vote by mail under a local option law used by 37 of the 39 counties. King County is shifting to all vote-by-mail next month and Pierce County officials have not yet agreed to the shift.

Online Voting:
Reed asks the Legislature to authorize the state Elections Division to create a system for overseas military and Washingtonians living abroad to use the Internet to vote in a secure fashion that preserves ballot secrecy and security. The legislation doesn’t specify when the project would begin, and it could be tested on a pilot project basis with only selected counties. The bill does not ask for funding at this time, and federal or foundation grants might be used.

“The Legislature has previously approved a similar pilot project sponsored by the Department of Defense, although the government did not proceed,” said state Elections Director Nick Handy. “We believe this is a prudent and secure way to help our valued servicemembers, missionaries, Peace Corps members, business people and others.”

Voter Registration:
Reed proposes to move registration deadlines closer to Election Day, while still leaving adequate time for scrutiny to assure that registrations are in order. The deadline for new registrations submitted in person would be moved from 15 days to eight days before Election Day. The deadline for new registrations by mail or online is moved from 31 days to 29 days before Election Day.

Top 2 Primary:
The U.S. Supreme Court last spring upheld a voter-approved initiative that gave Washington a new primary system that sends the two top vote-getters forward to the General Election, regardless of party. The new legislation would remove the now-outdated references to the unpopular old pick-a-party primary and bring elections laws into line with the new system.

It would define major parties, currently Democratic and Republican, and create a process for petitioning to create a minor party. Candidates then could list one of those parties – or no party – as their preference when they file for office. Current rules allow candidates to designate their own party preference, leading to situations like a candidate who said he preferred the Salmon Yoga Party.

The legislation would move the election of precinct committee officers back to the General Election and establish a minimum vote requirement of 20. The measure also would increase from 1 percent to 2 percent the threshold a candidate would have to meet in the primary in order to advance to the General Election. It also would change the requirements for tallying write-in votes.

Reed’s executive request package also includes:
• Authority for the State Capitol Committee to handle donor recognition requests for the new state Heritage Center rooms and spaces. It is traditional in museums and institutions such as the National Archives to honor major donors with appropriate recognition as sponsors of a room or public space, such as the Boeing Learning Center at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the Weyerhaueser Reading Room  at the Minnesota State Library and public and nonprofit institutions in Washington state. Rather than have the Legislature approve each naming, the Capitol Committee would act on requests from the Heritage Center.

• Permission for the Secretary of State to donate Washington state flags to state military personnel, using monetary donations from veterans’ organizations and the general public.

• Changes in the registration of limited liability corporations, foreign limited liability partnerships, and Corporations Sole. The measure would dissolve illegitimate Corporations Sole and block future registrations after Aug. 1.