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Opinion: Washington state proves why Trump is dead wrong about election results

King County ballots. (AP)

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a measure that had allowed Wisconsin ballots postmarked on Nov. 3 to be counted up to six days after Election Day. But if Washington state’s own history of tallying mail-in ballots proves anything, it’s that very little about the Supreme Court’s reasoning in that decision makes logical sense.

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In a state where any ballot postmarked on Election Day gets counted, Washington has been no stranger to seeing races appear to shift as tallies come in for days after the fact. We saw that most recently in 2019, when early results made it look as though incumbent Councilmember Kshama Sawant was going to lose to newcomer Egan Orion, before a flood of late-tallied votes in the ensuing days ultimately delivered her a victory.

Despite what some would have us believe, such occurrences aren’t part of some grand conspiracy to conjure votes out of nowhere after an election outcome is seemingly decided. Rather, it’s the result of a thorough process to ensure that everyone’s vote gets counted.

That’s what made it chilling to see Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh argue in his concurring opinion on the Wisconsin ballot case that states should “want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of an Election.”

First, it’s worth mentioning that absentee ballots flowing in after Election Day aren’t “flipping” results — they’re simply being tallied as they should be. To wit: If I start counting a deck of cards and stop at 15, that doesn’t change the fact that there are still 52 cards. If I stop counting before I get to 52, all I’ll have is an incomplete deck.

Second, it’s no coincidence that the same people casting those “suspicions of impropriety” are also the ones who would be at a disadvantage during an expected “blue shift” in late tallies. In past elections with a vote-by-mail component, Democratic voters have been known to send their ballots in later than their Republican counterparts (even if it appears as though that trend may be shifting in 2020).

We saw those suspicions firsthand when President Trump said, shortly after the Supreme Court issued its Monday ruling, that he believes we “must have [a] final total on November 3rd.”

But the idea that we always have our final results on election night is a misnomer largely perpetuated by media networks using exit polling to call races before tallies are certified by local election officials. Whenever we’ve seen TV coverage indicating the so-called “final” result of a race shortly after polls close, that’s the networks themselves making an educated projection, and not the product of local election offices finalizing races.

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In reality, the process of finalizing and certifying results rarely wraps up on the night of an election, and can often drag on for days, or even weeks. In the middle of a pandemic where a large portion of the country will be voting by mail, that’s likely to occur in this year’s election on an even larger scale. To have that process delegitimized by demanding we get our final results on a manufactured, illusory due date is questionable at best, and at worst, is patently undemocratic.

Here in Washington, our own Secretary of State Kim Wyman — a Republican — has warned that we shouldn’t expect to know who wins the presidential election “until mid to late November.”

“We want to make sure that whoever wins, it was indeed the candidate that the voters wanted — that’s going to take time,” she told CBS in August.

And as outlandish as that may sound, it’s also not at all out of the ordinary. In fact, Washington’s own laws don’t require an election to be fully certified until “several weeks” after Election Day, “to account for every ballot cast and ensure that every valid vote is included in the election totals.”

What Washingtonians have come to recognize as business as usual for the electoral process will soon be experienced by the rest of the country come Nov. 3. Just be sure to reassure your out-of-state friends that this is what’s supposed to happen in a functional democracy during a pandemic, regardless of what our president would have us believe.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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