News

Elections' black eye is healing

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

More people, more checking, more training and more documenting.

That’s the gist of what King County did to prepare for the primary election.

County election officials have been pointing to changes in the vote-counting system since late August after the November 2004 election left them with a black eye. Changes range from simple ones to making a concentrated effort on documenting and tracking the ballots.

The next test will be in the general election Nov. 8.

Special teams of troubleshooters were placed around the county to help with problems at polling stations in the Sept. 20 primary. All poll workers were required to attend training and received a procedures manual prior to the election, according to election officials.

There were more poll workers –– 3,700 –– working than in the past, according to the elections department. People were also added to the process for counting mail-in ballots, said spokeswoman Hilary Karasz. They have been checking signatures and counting ballots, inspecting questionable ballots and double-checking each other’s work.

Last Friday, a group of 30 or so were putting some of the final touches on the primary election at the Mail Ballot Operating Satellite (MBOS) facility tucked away in a series of warehouses in Seattle.

It was much quieter than the night of the election or the day after, when about 240,000 mail-in ballots from around the county were tabulated. Counters, observers from political parties, runners, security, press and election troubleshooters filled the building.

By last Thursday, election employees –– watched by party observers –– counted the last ballots and reviewed those the counting machines spat out for one reason or another.

In the days shortly after the primary, 20 people were sitting at computer screens in the MBOS building on First Avenue South, checking the signature on each mail-in ballot compared to what the county had on file. Ballots without signatures matching those on file or the signature wasn’t in the county’s file at all were held. The voters were contacted by phone and mail and asked to update their signature with the county before their ballots were counted.

Ballots that made it through the signature verification went to the vote-counting machines. They scanned the ballots which voters had hopefully marked correctly with filled-in bubbles next to the candidates they supported with a pencil.

And because of a new state law, voters had to declare a political party affiliation for their votes to count in partisan races.

Ballots spat out by the machines were dealt with by a special group of election workers, officials said. It was their job to determine if the intent of the voter was clear. If the voter used check marks instead of the bubbles, the election workers wouldn’t enhance the ballot but created a new one.

Enhancing was so last election season. Both political parties used the practice –– fill the bubbles of the original ballot so the machine would read it –– as a red light that the elections department wasn’t counting properly. Or, not in the favor of the party complaining.

Now a clean ballot is used so the voter’s ballot can be kept as the original record. Two election workers work together. One reads the voter’s choices to the other, who fills in the corresponding bubbles on the new ballot, Karasz said.

The election workers switch ballots to verify accuracy and the new ballot is counted.

The elections department estimated between 5 and 10 percent of the primary ballots were pulled for one reason or another –– the ballot being damaged, the signature not matching, of voters not filling out the ballots properly.

Everything is logged in and out as it moves through the process, Karasz said.

Other simple steps have been taken to address problems discovered in last fall’s election through a recount in the controversial race for governor:

• A hole is now punched in each mail-in ballot so election workers can easily see if the inner envelope and the ballot inside were removed. The hole also allows workers to keep batches of ballots together with plastic zip ties.

• Provisional ballots, given to voters not voting in their precinct, look different from poll ballots and can’t go through the counting machines. The elections department drew fire last year when it was revealed provisional ballots were being counted with little verification.

• King County is one of the first counties in the state to mail military and overseas ballots to those voters. There have been numerous complaints over the years that those voters didn’t receive their ballots in time to send them back.

“With such a large percentage of people in King County voting by mail, our improvements to mail ballot processing have been central to our efforts to restore voter confidence,” said Dean Logan, director of the county agency that includes elections. “We increased security and made changes to improve accuracy and efficiency.”

County Councilwomen Kathy Lambert and Jane Hague last week called for formalization of election reform measures they said could prevent improperly cast votes, one of the problems last November. Their proposals, which will receive a council committee hearing, include reconciling voter lists with the U.S. Postal Service’s list of forwarded absentee ballots, the Postal Service’s change-of-address database, the county medical examiner’s list of deceased people and police lists of registered felons.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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