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Votes that count, a promise to keep


In the wake of the controversial gubernatorial election, Secretary of State Sam Reed has called on the Legislature again to pass a package of election-reform measures. They include some of the same proposals Reed made in the wake of another controversial election more than four years ago.

Those four years have left us precious little to show for all the talk of reform, except another controversial election.

The troubled 2000 election brought broad calls for reform. Maria Cantwell, the Democrat who had just nipped incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in a 2,229-vote recount victory, pledged to make campaign finance reform one of her top priorities.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights alleged that voter disenfranchisement had been so systemic in Florida's presidential election that it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1960. Estimates were that as many as 6 million Americans' votes had not been counted.

Committees and commissions were formed, including one headed by former Presidents Carter and Ford. Calls went out for billions of dollars in federal funds to help phase out punch-card voting machines and for uniform voting procedures to replace those that varied from state to state and county to county.

Here in Washington, Reed questioned the rush to abandon punch-card voting. Even though he called it "an archaic technology," Reed said in December 2000, "I would not support a move away from punch cards."

Reed did propose a group of other state reforms, including moving the date of the primary election from September to June, requiring absentee ballots to be received by the close of Election Day and the adoption of uniform procedures for interpreting voter intent on questionable ballots.

National election reform was yet another victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which moved all but homeland security issues into the background. In November 2001, a Common Cause study concluded that the "genuine crisis" of election reform had been ignored. Most states had done nothing and "Many are simply waiting in vain for financial help to arrive from Washington." The same report gave Washington state's elections process a "C" grade, citing, among other things, the lack of a statewide voter registration system.

Two months later, Reed proposed a set of election reforms that included a statewide voter registration database and phasing out punch-card voting in 15 counties, pinned on hopes of millions of dollars in federal aid.

The Legislature passed the statewide registration bill and Reed's office adopted new rules on determining voter intent on questionable ballots.

By September 2002, former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher lamented the lack of federal progress, saying, "If no action is taken, that failure will be a testament to the shortness of memory and the shallowness of commitments to election reform."

The repeat of election foul-ups in Florida in 2002 renewed cries for reform and federal money. And King County produced its own foul-up, when thousands of voters didn't receive absentee ballots in time. In a perhaps prescient outburst, state GOP Chairman Chris Vance declared at the time, "If we lose a legislative race by a very small margin say 100 votes or less I'm going to court."

This newspaper worried in an editorial that the King County debacle raised "the troubling specter that the county system may no longer be capable of distributing or counting ballots in a timely or legal manner."

Passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002 rallied fresh hopes of federal funding for reforms as much as $62 million for Washington.

In January 2003, Reed again called on the Legislature to change the primary date and require ballots to be received by Election Day.

In May 2003, Reed said the state had "finally begun to work on a statewide voter registration database."

By December 2003, Reed was complaining that federal money had been slow in getting to the state. Washington was not alone. As of January last year, only $650 million of the promised $3.9 billion in national federal aid had been forthcoming.

We've run out of excuses and we're running out of time. Reed, the new governor and the Legislature must take action both to respond to this election's woes and to prevent greater problems in the future.

Move the primary date to June, to give sufficient time before the general election to confirm results and get absentee ballots out to the vast majority of citizens who vote by mail. Accommodate the change by waiving the freeze on campaign fund raising in the 30 days immediately following the legislative session.

Require counties to mail absentee ballots at least 18 days before the election.

Require absentee ballots to be received by close of Election Day or postmarked by the Friday before.

Establish by statute unified and uniform procedures for provisional ballots and for determining voter intent on optical-scan ballots.

Finish the statewide database of registered voters.

Convert all counties to a single, universal form of machinery for counting poll-cast and absentee ballots.

Use state funds to pay for the machinery upgrades; counties simply cannot and should not bear the burden for statewide reform.

Demand that our congressional delegation do what it takes to produce the federal funding we've got coming.

Require that voters receive written notice of ballot signature problems and allow only elections workers to pursue affidavits from voters whose absentee or provisional ballots have been rejected over signature issues.

Mandate that the state, not already hard-pressed counties, pay for statewide recounts.

Accomplish most of these changes by the 2006 election and all of them by the 2008 election.

Barely a week before the November election, Reed declared, "We're ready ... We guarantee your vote next Tuesday will be counted correctly."

We weren't ready, but we'd better be ready for the next election. And we'll remember who made promises and who delivered.

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