Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Release RCV vote results sooner, not later

This editorial appears in the Tacoma News Tribune today.

According to the Pierce County voter’s pamphlet, “the world will be watching” to see how ranked-choice voting is handled here when it is used for the first time in the state of Washington.

It looks like the world will have to hold its breath and wait – along with Pierce County voters and the candidates in the four county races affected: executive, assessor-treasurer, sheriff and County Council District 2.

After the polls close Nov. 4, the auditor’s office will release an immediate tally of how many first-place votes each candidate receives as well as updated first-place votes each day as more ballots are counted.

But it won’t release the number of second- and third-place votes each candidate gets, and it won’t apply the algorithm that allocates those second- and third-place votes – and determines the winner – until the Friday after the election.

Even though the computer software being used on the RCV ballots apparently quickly tabulates and updates the results, Auditor Pat McCarthy says it makes sense to wait until most ballots have been received. A memo from her to the candidates states that applying the RCV algorithm earlier than Friday on a smaller number of ballots “would unnecessarily increase the risk of the appearance of fluctuating results.”

But voters are familiar with fluctuating results. They’ve seen the lead in close races tip back and forth between candidates over the course of days, even weeks. (Remember the wild 2004 gubernatorial race?) Voters understand that the count can change as more ballots arrive in the days after the election.

Even if the auditor’s office doesn’t apply the computer algorithm that determines the final winner, the very least it should do is release a daily tally of all the votes, not just the first-place votes. That way voters can see what’s going on in almost real time. And it would help dispel suspicion that anything untoward might be going on in the auditor’s office.

That’s no small consideration. McCarthy is a county executive candidate whose race is one of those on the ranked-choice voting ballot. And she’s already raised some hackles by putting a survey on ranked-choice voting in the ballot that included a signed note. If anything, she should bend over backwards to increase transparency in her office’s proceedings.

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