Slow going for local counting; County blames ranked-choice voting for lines at polls, delayed results (WA)
The News Tribune. November 6, 2008. by DAVID WICKERT
Massive turnout. Fewer polling places. A new voting system. Sluggish computer software. Mix it up and you have the ingredients for long lines and late results for Pierce County elections.
With the results of some races still unsettled, elections officials Wednesday took flak for the events that made Election Day anything but business as usual in Pierce County.
Auditor Pat McCarthy, the county’s elections chief, said she doubled staffing at the polls in anticipation of a big turnout. And she was prepared to add staffing after 5 p.m., when polls traditionally get busy with the after-work crowd.
But she acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that it wasn’t enough. She said she didn’t anticipate the unusual crush of voters when polls opened at 7 a.m. By midday, she had deployed more workers to help.
“Were people angry? Were they angry at me? Absolutely,” said McCarthy, who has held the post for six years. “But things went pretty smoothly, considering we had such a high turnout.”
Election officials estimated up to 85 percent of the county’s 411,000 registered voters would cast a ballot. About one-quarter of voters were expected to vote at polling places, with the rest voting by mail.
Many voters waited hours to cast a ballot at polling places, with some forced to vote well after the polls closed at 8 p.m.
Colby Parks of Tacoma waited nearly two hours to vote at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Tuesday morning.
“I expected there to be a big turnout and a big line,” Parks said. But he said the precinct “seemed to be understaffed, given the turnout.”
“It comes down to having enough people, enough machines to handle everybody,” said County Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom.
Muri saw another problem: not enough polling places.
Last year the county Auditor’s Office reduced the number of polling places by nearly 40 percent, to 58. “The rush to consolidate precincts was overdone,” Muri said.
McCarthy said she reduced the number of polling places partly in response to poor turnout in recent elections.
Katie Blinn, assistant director of elections for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, kept an eye on the situation as an observer at the Pierce County Elections Center in Tacoma. She said the county’s new ranked-choice voting system – the only one of its kind in the state – played a big role in the long lines.
Blinn said voters weren’t accustomed to the new system, which was contained on a second ballot and enabled voters to rank up to three candidates in order of preference in county races. She said they asked a lot of questions, which further slowed the process.
McCarthy also cited the new voting system as the cause of delayed election results Tuesday night.
McCarthy originally planned to wait until Friday to run the computer program that distributes second- and third-choice votes among candidates. Under pressure from The News Tribune’s editorial page and from ranked-choice voting advocates, she decided to run the program on election night.
The result: Other election returns – including results from close state and federal races – were delayed until after 10 p.m., after the state’s other 39 counties had each reported some results.
McCarthy blamed the delay on new voting tabulation software. When the office ran the software Tuesday night, it was so slow that technicians had to add memory to the computer system.
Ranked-choice voting advocate Kelly Haughton wondered why the Auditor’s Office didn’t anticipate the problem.
“We knew months ago there were going to be 400,000 ballots cast, and we knew how big those (data) files were going to be,” he said. “I don’t understand.”
McCarthy said that while her office had tested the software previously, it did not test it with anywhere near the volume of ballots processed Tuesday. She said Pierce County is one of the first to use the software, so the problem could not have been foreseen.
Blinn said she was impressed with the way Pierce County handled the dual voting systems, considering the circumstances.
“They did it well,” she said.
McCarthy acknowledged that her office has done “some Monday morning quarterbacking” about problems on Election Day. She said some polling places could have been set up differently to speed the flow of voters through lines. And she said some of the poll books could have been split up to help workers find registrations faster.
But she said focusing on the problems misses the larger positive story about Tuesday’s election: The big turnout meant voters cared.
“People felt a part of something,” McCarthy said. “This country hasn’t felt a part of something in some time. Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, people were engaged.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
PRELIMINARY COUNTY RESULTS
Pierce County published preliminary results from its new ranked-choice voting system early Wednesday morning. These results represent a snapshot in time, so no candidates have been eliminated yet. The county has tens of thousands of ballots left to count and is scheduled to publish another set of ranked-choice results at the end of the day Friday, and then again the following Friday. In each round, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second and third choices from ballots for that candidate are redistributed.
From the ballots in hand at the time, Shawn Bunney had the most first-choice votes among the four candidates for county executive. But Pat McCarthy prevailed after three rounds of counting.
Round 1 Round 2Round 3
CandidateVotes % Transfer*Votes % TransferVotes %
Mike Lonergan, EE**13,88514.74%-13,885-
Pat McCarthy, D27,59729.31%+4,41232,00935.32%+14,21646,22555.07%
Calvin Goings, D22,18223.56%+2,47124,65327.20%-24,653
Shawn Bunney, R30,38532.27%+3,58133,96637.48%+3,75237,71844.93%
** Executive Excellence Party
County Assessor-Treasurer (nonpartisan)
In the six-person race for the county’s elected tax collector position, Dale Washam had the most first-choice votes early Wednesday, but Barbara Gelman prevailed at the end.
Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4
CandidateVotes % Transfer*Votes % TransferVotes % TransferVotes %
* Transferred votes do not add up to eliminated candidate’s total because not all voters ed second or third choices