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Spin Control: Wrapup from the primary: Recount challenges and the biggest loser

September 23, 2018

Late last month, several unsuccessful candidates from the August primary asked for hand recounts of key precincts, suspecting that the results would change when people counted the ballots instead of the machines.

Didn’t happen.

The group of candidates for the U.S. Senate and several congressional offices ponied up a down payment for a hand count of seven precincts in Pierce County, seven in King County, six in Thurston County and three in Snohomish County.

If that turned up anything suspicious, they had planned to ask for more. But in each of those precincts, elections officials in the respective counties found the hand count didn’t vary from the final machine count.

While that pretty well settles any question of the outcome, it’s likely to prompt a legal challenge of the differences between the way the counties handled the recount. The candidates are contesting the charges they face for their challenge, which were more expensive than they expected.

State law allows an elections office to charge a challenger for the costs of a recount unless it changes the outcome, in which case it’s free. A challenger must come up with a down payment of 25 cents per ballot before the recount, but is responsible for any extra costs after that.

Some counties separate and store their primary ballots by precinct, which makes doing a recount pretty easy. Others don’t segregate their primary ballots that way, so getting the named precincts meant going through all ballots turned in. As one can imagine, the time and costs of that are much higher.

Washington puts the responsibility for elections on the counties, as a way of maintaining local control. But that creates a problem, said Scott Stafne, an attorney who ran as a Republican in the 1st Congressional District.

“When you want to get something done, there’s no uniformity,” Stafne said. “It’s hard for candidates to understand all their processes.”

That runs against the constitutional protection of free and equal protections, he said. The challengers will at least raise that claim in a lawsuit they expect to file in the next week or so in Skagit County Superior Court – a county not involved in, but adjacent to, those in the recount.

Biggest loser of primaries

Picking winners and losers of any election is easy. You just look at the numbers.

But picking the biggest loser? That can be hard, because is it worse to lose by a handful of votes, or a boatload?

No matter for this year’s primaries, because it’s clear the biggest loser was Rocky De La Fuente. He didn’t just lose the Washington’s U.S. Senate primary, finishing 21st out of 29. He lost nine U.S. Senate primaries in as many states.

De La Fuente was testing the constitutional provision that a candidate need not be a resident of a state to run for the U.S. Senate, only a resident of that state to take office. So he filed in nine states, and presumably would have moved to a state where he won. What he would have done if he had won in two states was unclear, but also academic because he failed to qualify for the general election in all of them.

It’s possible that Republican voters were disinclined to vote for someone who ran two years ago for president, first as a Democrat and then as a member of the Reform Party.

His showing in Washington, with one-third of 1 percent of the vote, was his worst showing percentage-wise. In terms of total votes, his worst showing was Wyoming, with only 1,280 votes.

One could say his best showing was either Rhode Island or Florida, where he finished second. But in each of those races, there was only one other primary opponent, so by finishing second he also finished last.

Some folks might say this should discourage De La Fuente from repeating this strategy in the future. But Washington elections officials probably won’t. A candidate pays 1 percent of the annual salary to file for office in this state, and Rocky’s $1,740 were just as green as anyone else’s.

A plug for mail-in ballots

Kinder words for Washington’s mail-in voting system were produced by former Secretary of State Sam Reed who, with former Oregon counterpart Phil Keisling, extolled its virtues last week in a guest column in the New York Times.

They contend the best way to increase turnout would be to abolish the polling place and mail ballots to all voters. They argue it should be called “vote-at-home” rather than “vote-by-mail.”

They’re right that turnout in non-battleground Washington and Oregon was way above average in the 2016 presidential election, in the 2014 midterms and this year’s primaries. They didn’t mention Washington’s abysmal turnout in last year’s elections, but might just be being picky.

They also had an answer for the folks who might miss going to their polling places, the: “Giving up those Norman Rockwellian memories – real or imagined – of crunchy autumn leaves and smiling neighbors is a meager price to pay for a more inclusive system,” they wrote.

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