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Washington: What to expect on election night

A person carrying an umbrella walks past a King County Ballot Drop box with cars parked behind it.
Elaine Thompson
/
AP
A pedestrian walks past a King County ballot drop box, closed until ballots are mailed about three weeks before the election, on a Seattle street Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020.

What to expect on election night in Washington state? A long wait.

If control of the U.S. House comes down to congressional races here, it could take days — or weeks — for the nation to know the outcome. Washington’s vote-by-mail system leads to some of the highest voter turnout in the nation, but is not a system that leads to fast results.

Two of the state's 10 U.S. House seats have garnered national attention heading into November: the 8th district, where Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier faces Republican Matt Larkin; and the 3rd district, which became an open contest after the Republican incumbent, Jaime Herrera Beutler, was ousted by a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.

The top race in Washington, however, is between Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who is seeking a sixth term against Republican Tiffany Smiley, a first-time candidate.

In another key race, voters will decide whether to elect their first Democratic secretary of state in six decades or, instead, send a longtime county auditor to be the state’s first nonpartisan chief elections officer.

Republicans were shut out of the state’s “top two” primary in August, which sent current Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs and nonpartisan Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson to the general election. Republican Rep. Brad Klippert won't appear on the ballot but is mounting a write-in campaign backed by the state GOP.

All 98 seats in the state House are up for election, as are 25 of the 49 in the Senate, with several expected to be competitive.

Here’s a look at what to expect on election night:

ELECTION NIGHT

Polls close at 8 p.m. local time (11 p.m. ET).

HOW WASHINGTON VOTES

Washington is true blue when it comes to most offices — Joe Biden easily won the 2020 presidential election there, and Democrats control the Legislature and hold all statewide elected offices.

But Republicans run competitive campaigns across the state and hold sway in certain areas. The GOP occupies congressional seats east of the Cascades, and rural areas west of the mountains also lean conservative, adding competition to the two key congressional races there.

The Puget Sound area, especially King County — home to Seattle — is where most of the population is, and where Democrats dominate. For statewide Republican candidates to stay competitive, they have to limit their loss margins there.

Washington is a vote-by-mail state and voters are automatically sent a ballot. Once voters return their ballots, either by mail or in a drop box, they can confirm via a state-run website that it’s been received by the county auditor’s office, and where it is in the process.

Because a ballot only needs to be postmarked by Election Day, or dropped in a drop box by 8 p.m. election night, about half of the vote is outstanding at the end of the night, making it impossible to quickly determine the winner of close races.

Washington’s 39 counties all post their initial results after 8 p.m. Many counties do daily updates after that, but because of the number of steps involved in ballot verification — including sorting, signature verification and assessment of ballots for extraneous marks — the updates can feel painfully slow for candidates locked in close races and the media organizations covering them.

DECISION NOTES

AP will tabulate and declare winners in 113 contested elections in Washington, including one U.S. Senate seat, secretary of state and 10 U.S. House races.

Each county will post one report on election night and again on nights following Election Day. We will be tallying total write-in votes in the secretary of state’s race.

The AP may call a statewide or U.S. House race in which the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5% or less, if we determine the lead is too large for a recount to change the outcome.

The AP does not make projections and will only declare a winner when it’s determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap.

Should a candidate declare victory or offer a concession before the AP calls a race, we will cover newsworthy developments in our reporting. In doing so, we will make clear that the AP has not declared a winner and explain why.

The AP may call a statewide or U.S. House race in which the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5% or less, if we determine the lead is too large for a recount to change the outcome.

The AP will not call down-ballot races on election night if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 2% or if the leading candidate is within 2% of the 50% runoff threshold. AP will revisit those races later in the week to confirm there aren’t enough outstanding votes left to count that could change the outcome.

What else should I know?

Q: WHAT DID WE LEARN FROM THE PRIMARY?

A: That the “top two” primary was not a guarantee to help Trump-targeted Republicans. The number of people on the ballot helped Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse — one of two members of Congress from the state who voted for impeachment — but did not save Herrera Beutler.

Q: HOW LONG DOES COUNTING USUALLY TAKE?

A: Counting is slow in Washington. In 2020, 18.3% of the total vote was not yet counted on election night. Totals didn’t reach 100% until 10 days after the election.

Because ballots only have to be postmarked by Election Day, it can take weeks to decide close races. Counties can keep counting up until Nov. 29, the day they certify results.

Q: WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS WITH EARLY RETURNS?

A: People who are in the lead on election night may ultimately lose once all the ballots are counted. Also, because ballots are still arriving at election offices days after Election Day, it’s difficult to know how many ballots are truly outstanding.

Q: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TUESDAY?

A: Washington law provides for mandatory recounts if the gap between candidates is less than half of 1% and closer than 2,000 votes. In statewide races, a manual recount is mandatory if the margin is less than 1,000 votes and less then 0.25% of total votes cast for the top two. In other offices, manual recount is mandatory when margin is less than 150 votes or less than or equal to 0.25% of votes cast for the top two candidates.

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Check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections.

The Associated Press (“AP”) is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from the AP. Founded in 1846, the AP today is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. The AP considers itself to be the backbone of the world’s information system, serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television, and online customers with coverage in text, photos, graphics, audio and video.
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