- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Call it Election Month.
With the recent history of Election Day fiascoes, voting officials nationwide are bracing for a long day today, followed by days of counting and recounting absentee ballots and mail-in votes, and expected legal challenges in close races.
For voters in states with the tightest races, it could translate into days, or even weeks, of uncertainty.
"Election Day never was and never will be a one-day process," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a Houston-based nonprofit group that specializes in election administration.
"Much of that has to do with the growth of the absentee balloting and the mail-in votes, and the close elections."
Nearly 5 million votes of a projected 70 million are not likely to be counted by midnight today, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.
The bulk of the 5 million votes come from Oregon's statewide mail balloting, millions of absentee votes in Washington state and California, and up to half the Senate ballots in Minnesota, Mr. Gans said.
The 2000 presidential election, which wasn't decided for 36 days, put parties on notice for potential legal problems. Democrats and Republicans are sending lawyers to almost every site where there is a competitive Senate race, to look out for voter fraud.
Some believe the trend of filing absentee ballots and mailing in votes is a step in the wrong direction and should be reversed, possibly by eliminating the absentee-ballot system. People should vote at the same time so everyone can have the same information, Mr. Gans said.
For example, absentee voters in Minnesota could be left without a voice in the U.S. Senate race if they voted for Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, and returned their ballots before his death Oct. 25. They must now go to the polls and cast their vote or write in the candidate's name on the ballot if they have not yet mailed it in.
"I hope this is not the way it's going to be from now on," Mr. Gans said. "It hurts turnout and our political process. But unfortunately at this point, we don't see a light at the end of the tunnel for it to change. We are sacrificing, with these gimmicks, one of the last communal acts of life."
Others, like Paul Hernnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said the time it takes to learn election results now is "incredibly quick" compared with the old days when all votes came in the form of paper ballots, which were counted individually.
"There is no reason for it to be done in a hurry," Mr. Hernnson said. "Most Americans are impatient and want to know things right away. The fact that we can get results within 24 hours is pretty remarkable. If it takes 24 or even 48 hours, it shouldn't even really matter to people."
The political calendar is set up to give election officials enough time about two months, between Election Day and Jan. 1 to resolve any Election Day difficulties, Mr. Hernnson said.
Analyzing a ballot takes a lot of time because it is "a check on human actions," Mr. Lewis said. It takes an average of 30 minutes to analyze a ballot and to check the eligibility of the voter who cast it, Mr. Lewis said.
It took election officials in Los Angeles 28 days to analyze about 101,000 ballots in 2000.
"As election officials, we want to try to give Americans all the totals, the official results, not unofficial results," Mr. Lewis said. "To do an election instantaneously sometimes brings wrong answers. And we want an election that's accurate, instead of inaccurate."
Voters today will pick 36 governors, 34 senators and decide on all 435 seats in the House.
Driving the recent lag in declaring winners has been the competitiveness of contests, election officials said.
At least six Senate races, 12 House races and 12 gubernatorial races are too close to call. In 17 states, including six with very close races, narrow margins result in automatic recounts.
"It's simpler when the races aren't so close," said Lorn Foster, a politics professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches about campaigns and elections.
"The 2000 election taught us a great lesson, which is we need a lot more scrutiny in the process. So it is better to err on the side of caution than just getting quick results."
Republicans and Democrats expect to wait at least several days before learning which candidate won the Minnesota Senate race. Minnesota election officials printed paper ballots for the more than 2 million voters because of the last-minute substitution of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale for Mr. Wellstone. All of those ballots must be counted by hand.
In Oregon, the whole election is conducted by mail. Two years ago, it took a month to count mail ballots and formalize the narrow victory of Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, in Washington state, analysts said.
South Dakota is expecting a snail's pace count of absentee ballots, as the FBI looks into purported voter fraud on Indian reservations. The charge could delay final results in the state's Senate race.
Also, absentee ballots in King County, Washington, may come in later than usual because election officials there were three days late in mailing out those ballots. That was because ballot printers, who also have a contract with Maryland, gave residents in that state priority so they could vote from the safety of their homes because of last month's sniper attacks.
Ballots may also play an important role in Louisiana's Senate race, where the winner must garner more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff December 7. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat who has three Republican challengers, leads in the polls but falls short of 50 percent.

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