Reed reworks primary elections

During a tour of several local communities, Secretary of State Sam Reed spoke to students at Northwest Yeshiva High School last Thursday and visited the Reporter to talk about election changes for Washington voters. Reed discussed the move toward replacing polls with mail-in ballots, rescheduling the primary in August and the Supreme Court’s late decision concerning the top-two primary. As a result, this year’s primary election will be the third different type since 2003. Reed also talked about his responsibility in cleaning up the list of voters since the governor’s election recount in 2004.

The state’s high court recently ruled in favor of the attorney general’s appeal to reinstate the top-two primary. What will be different for voters this fall?

The most important change for our state is that voters are no longer going to have to pick a party. They’ll be able to vote for the person — not the party — in the primary. Most of the people in this state really want that. Voters don’t like the idea of being restricted, so this is something voters in this state are going to be very pleased with.

Do you plan to institute the new primary this year?

We have a primary coming up on Aug. 19, and we are going to be instituting it in time for that. The one difference from the blanket primary that we had years ago is that in order to make it constitutional, we have to have the top two vote-getters, not one from each party. So we will end up once in awhile with this unusual situation with two Democrats or two Republicans running against each other in the general election. The important thing for readers to understand is that this is a primary like our odd-year primaries in the state of Washington that we’ve had for years, like the Mercer Island City Council or School Board, in which the top two vote-getters move ahead, period. So it is not in any way a political party nominating process.

The state is continuing to move toward all mail-in elections. What has your office done to facilitate that?

Thirty-seven out of 39 counties have done it. Voters have overwhelmingly shown the desire to move toward mailing in their ballots. I think that 80-some percent of King County mailed them in even though they still have poll sites, and Pierce County had about 92 percent voluntary mail-in ballots.

There has been recent news that King County won’t be ready for an all mail-in ballot this November. Why is that?

King County, because of the population, needs the equipment and technology to sort and count the ballots really quickly. And that technology is available; it just doesn’t look like they are going to have it ready by November. So they’ll have it ready in 2009.

What feedback have you received regarding the closing of the polls?

I think instead of feedback, there has been some backlash — ‘push back.’ There are a few voters who really miss their poll sites and the whole experience of going to the polls to vote. So I suggested that counties have a drop-off site where voters can take their ballot and drop it off, and still have that experience.

In addition to the move to mail-in voting, the future may bring us the ability to vote on the Internet. What is your office doing about the possibility of online voting?

Some tinkering. When I was the auditor of Thurston County in 2000, we did a test with an online vote in the presidential primary. Of course, it didn’t count, but it allowed us to see some of the challenges ahead. One of the things I’ve tried to push while in office is getting overseas military personnel online to vote. That would be one way to start it out and work out the difficulties. There are still a lot of issues with the Internet like security, hackers and accountability to be worked out. But I think there is an interest in voters to go online, and looking at the acceptance of mail-in voting — voters really want to mail in their ballots — it would be welcomed.

What else is now available online?

In addition to the online voter’s pamphlets and election results we put online, we now have voter registration online. We are able to use a department of licensing database so that if you have a driver’s license, you can fill out an online form to register. You need to put in your name, address and birth date, and we can check the database and lift your signature from the file with licensing.

With the new changes in how Washington residents vote, has your office seen any changes in the voter rolls and voter turnout?

In response to some of the problems that became apparent after the 2004 governor’s election, I’ve actually been able to clean up the voter rolls and actually reduced the size quite a bit. Using a database from the department of corrections of felons, we have been able to remove several names. We also check with the state patrol database for felons and we can check death records now as well. There have been over 400,000 names removed from the rolls since 2004. Voter turnout has been good lately. We have an open presidential race this year and a governor’s race that was tied last time with polls showing it is tied again this year. I think that we’ve been able to get more voters to register through the online registration system. I think that this year we may see record turnouts, not only in numbers but also in percentages.

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