Last fall, my esteemed predecessor in the editor's chair here at Seattle Weekly found himself, for the first time in many years, scheduled to be out of town on election day. He applied for an absentee ballot and duly sent it in, but when he returned from his travels a couple weeks after the vote, he found a letter from King County Records, Elections, and Licensing Services informing him that the signature on his ballot didn't match the one they had on file. Unfortunately, the results of the primary election had already been certified at that point and there was nothing he could do about it.
"I hope your vote didn't matter," said the gentleman at the King County office, lightheartedly, when Knute "Skip" Berger showed up downtown to inquire about the matter.
"For the record," says Berger today, not especially lightheartedly, "I don't vote just because I think my one vote might count in a contested election. I vote because all my votes matter to me."
There are already plenty of reasons to expect that the March 13 viaduct vote will produce an inconclusive mess: the fact that the ballot contains two mutually exclusive options for what to do—tunnel or rebuild—but does not require voters to choose between them; the fact that the vote is strictly "advisory" and will have no legal force whatsoever; etc. To all those you can now add another: Hundreds of Seattle voters are likely to see their ballots challenged just as Berger's was and will have to scramble to get their vote counted.
Why? The referendum on the viaduct is being done as the city and county's first all-mail election. That'll be nothing new for many of us, since about two-thirds of Seattle voters are already signed up as "permanent absentees" and regularly vote by mail. But another 133,000 people—or more than a third of Seattle's registered voters—have preferred to make the traditional trek to a local elementary school and sign in with the elderly ladies at the polling station. Some of those people will be sending in ballots for the first time in years—or ever.
Berger's experience, and county statistics, suggests this could be no small headache. In last year's November election, 7,677 absentee ballots were rejected in King County because of problems with the signature. A little more than half of those were resolved in time to make the votes count.
In Berger's case, there was a fairly unsurprising reason why the signature on the envelope raised a red flag among county ballot examiners: They were comparing it to their signature on file, which, Berger discovered, dated back to when he first registered to vote in King County almost 30 years ago. As with many of us, wisdom and lifestyle changes combined to alter Berger's penmanship. "Whose signature doesn't change in the 30 years after you turn 18?" he wonders.
To try to head off the problem, King County (which oversees the election, though it is Seattle-only) will send out a letter this week to all 133,000 "poll voters" in the city, encouraging them to send in updated signatures. But Berger wonders how many will bother. "Most people aren't going to know they're disenfranchised until too late," he says. "So unless your signature hasn't changed, you're screwed."
The county says it will be bending over backward to avoid screwing anyone. According to Bobbie Egan, spokesperson for King County Elections, the county will immediately contact by mail voters whose signature is deemed a "miscompare" and give them a chance to confirm their signature, either by mail or in person. Three days before the election results are scheduled to be certified (in this case, March 28), the county will also make phone calls to anyone who hasn't yet responded. (These steps are all mandated by state law.)
In addition to this week's mailing, the county plans public service announcements on local TV. "We're doing quite a bit of outreach," says Egan.
King County has had a spotty record in handling elections in recent years, including a debacle during the last governor's race, but the state elections director, Nick Handy, says they've improved their ways. "They did quite an excellent job in the fall election accounting for ballots," he says.
King County is in the midst of a multiyear effort to convert to all-mail elections countywide, and is "at least a year away" from being ready, according to Handy. But he says he doesn't have "any reservations" that the county can handle something as modest as the viaduct vote—a single issue in a single jurisdiction—on an all-mail basis.
Besides, he says, the signature concern is overblown. "In excess of 99 percent of signatures go right through." Trouble arises most often when a family member signs for another, Handy says, not when a person's signature has changed through time. "The basic style, shape, and slope characteristics remain the same," he says, adding that the state patrol trains county administrators in the art of analyzing John Hancocks.
Even so, it might be wise to dig out your old fake IDs and Frequent Gamer cards and start practicing.