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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Unlike Oregon and many others, WA accepts ballots postmarked by Election Day well into November

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Ballot boxes will close at 8 p.m. on election night in Washington. But ballots postmarked on or before Election Day will still be counted up to 20 days after the election.

In the battleground states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania legal battles have raged over whether postmarked ballots that arrive via mail after Election Day will be counted. In other states, like Wisconsin, it’s already been decided -- they won’t.

Meanwhile in Washington -- a non-battleground state -- ballots that arrive up to 20 days after the election, or by November 23, will still count, so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.

That’s been the long-standing rule in Washington going back decades.

Washington’s latitude about late-arriving ballots stands in stark contrast to Oregon, and more than half of states, where ballots must arrive by Election Day. In fact, by allowing ballots to still be counted nearly three weeks after the election, Washington has the most generous policy in the nation, according to a recent analysis by BuzzFeed News. 

Other states that will accept properly postmarked ballots through much of November are California, Illinois and Utah. 

Former Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said the state's decades-old policy is rooted in a history of wanting to make voting accessible to military and overseas voters.

“We have people from far and away who fairly should be able to participate in the election process,” Reed said.

Once Washington became an all vote-by-mail state, that 20 day post-election window was extended to all voters.

While overseas and military ballots are the most likely types to be delayed in the mail, there is fresh concern this year about ballots mailed domestically not arriving in time because of changes made to United States Postal Service facilities and operations.

In September, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson won an injunction against the Postal Service, but it’s not clear to what extent that agency has complied with that ruling. This week, Democratic Congresswoman Suzan DelBene asked Ferguson to investigate reports that mail sorting machines had not been returned to service at its Redmond, Washington facility. 

While the state of Washington’s policy favors access to the ballot, it also means that election results often aren’t certain until days after the election. The anticlimactic nature of election night has become an all-too-familiar reality in Washington, but not one that has spiraled into allegations of fraud, as President Donald Trump has suggested in the lead up to the election.

In fact, trust in Washington’s election system has generally been high in the nearly 20 years since the state’s 2004 contested gubernatorial contest. Following that high-stakes fight, and the ultimate legal victory of Democrat Chris Gregoire, the state enacted a series of election reforms. Washington also followed Oregon’s lead in becoming an all vote-by-mail state.

But the issue of allowing ballots to roll in and still count well after Election Day has caused some consternation.

For years, former Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican who served from 2001 to 2013, tried to get the Legislature to change the law to require ballots to arrive by Election Day, with exceptions for military and overseas ballots. 

“I felt a lot of it was just procrastination and it’s nice to get these elections over,” Reed said recently.

Reed said the reaction in the Legislature to the idea was “very unfriendly.” He left office in 2013 with his wish unfulfilled and Reed’s successor, Republican Kim Wyman, did not pick up the mantle. 

At the time, Reed said he was motivated by the protracted nature of the 2004 gubernatorial election.

“I was thinking we’ve got to do better than this,” Reed said.

But now, in retirement, Reed said he’s changed his mind on the subject and thinks Washington’s current policy of accepting properly postmarked ballots in the weeks following the election is fair to both voters and election administrators.

“Really, the responsibility of [an] election administrator is to get it right and to protect the integrity of the process, and the right of the voter to participate in the process, and not to do it quickly,” Reed said.

However, Reed said, he doesn’t support efforts in other states to change the rules for when ballots are due in the midst of an election.

Despite Washington's policy on later-arriving ballots, state and local election officials are urging voters to use official drop boxes in lieu of the mail, especially now that Election Day is less than a week away. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."